A young reporter’s ethical growing pains

Listening to more of Mickey Rooney’s unsuccessful “Shorty Bell” series from 1948 — after reading obituaries and tributes to him this week — I can’t help wondering what the audience wanted from his radio newspaper-journalism vehicle: A lighter family-friendly “Andy Hardy Goes to Press,” or a 44-years-early version of “Newsies“?

With only a handful of examples of the three-month run of the show, it’s obvious the producers and writers were struggling to find out what would please sponsors and audiences.

The Shorty Bell episode that old-time radio collectors have named “Crooked Hero,” one of the last four episodes from June 1948, shows a series still trying to be somewhat serious — perhaps something like the later TV series “Lou Grant.” In this half-hour story, the young reporter played by Rooney faces a hard lesson about whether a reporter can or should protect a friend from much more than bad publicity.

(Note: Rooney’s first line of the episode is, “With me and the newspaper business, it was a case of love at first sight. On my part, anyway…” If the audio-player gives you something else, see the technical note at the bottom of this page for some of the amusing confusion that is old-time-radio collecting.)

As the story opens, Shorty Bell’s gruff editor sends his scrappy protege off to cover what he calls a June “graduation,” even though the lad’s idea of a spring feature assignment is a day at an amusement park, not on a college campus. Actor John Hoyt plays the “tough editor/boss” stereotype even harder than Ed Asner did Lou Grant on television.

Editor Robard: “Mr. Bell, the day reporters on this paper choose their own assignments, we will run an eight-column head announcing that I am Queen of the May.”

Robard’s sense of humor is newsroom-coarse, and it takes Shorty a while to get the joke — that the “graduation” is a prison inmate’s funeral. Listeners get a lesson in appropriate contexts for humor when Shorty tries the same joke with a couple on the train, not realizing he’s talking to the dead man’s sister. A tough old boxer sets him straight.

Although the show was on its last legs, it was still gradually introducing Shorty’s character — in this episode we find out that before going into the service, Shorty had been a runner-up in a boxing tournament.

The “Hero” in the story’s title fits the other two main characters: a boxing legend the reporter meets on the train, and the editor, Don Robard, his idol and mentor. The plot turns on difficult decisions reporters sometimes must make between personal friendships and journalistic responsibility.

Robard, it turns out, was the man who sent the recently deceased former political boss to prison — although they had once been close friends. The dialogue may looks more purple on paper than it sounded coming out of radio speakers. When Shorty finds out the truth, he tells the story to his boss:

Shorty: “It’s about two fellows who were friends. One was a political boss and the other was a newspaper reporter. The reporter broke a big bribery story and sent his friend the politician to jail for 199 years. Do you think it’s a good story, Mr. Robard?”

Robard: “Not very, but then I never cared for cheap melodrama. However… for all I know, you may have the plot for the next Great American Novel, or even better, next year’s Academy Award movie. But I doubt it. It sounds like soap opera to me.”

Shorty: “Augie Davis was your friend.”

Robard: “Augie Davis was a corruptor of civil servants…
Keep your distance, Mr. Bell.”

Shorty: “What kind of business am I in anyway?”

Robard: “It’s not a business as far as you’re concerned; it’s a profession. Leave the ‘business’ aspect to the accountants and advertising boys. You’re very young, Mr. Bell, younger than I thought. Grow up. That’s all for today.”

I like some of the portrayal of Robard. Shorty’s not the only one he’s brusque with. He interrupts a sportswriter’s story pitch with lines like.
“Delete the grace-notes… and the build-up.”

This evening’s half-hour Shorty Bell melodrama has plenty of build-up and a few grace-notes. By the end, it’s no surprise that Shorty faces a moral dilemma similar to the one Robard faced years before.

The editor is wise enough to see why Shorty, having uncovered a racetrack scandal, refuses to reveal the name of a wrong-doer:

“Why this reticence, Mr. Bell? Are you involved in some way with your Mr. X? A friend of yours, perhaps. It sometime does happen that a reporter covering a story foresees the possibility of damage to a friend if he goes to the root of a matter. I’m sure I’ve heard of cases like that.”

The last 10 minutes of the program would be be a good discussion-starter in a journalism ethics class, if the modern students have patience for old-time radio. If they stick with it to the end, they’ll even hear a reference to the even more dramatic real-life case of Jake Lingle — a Chicago reporter who was murdered after developing a too-cozy relationship with organized crime.

Will Shorty’s conscience, or Robard’s experience, convince the lad to avoid Lingle’s fate? I wonder whether 1948 radio listeners knew the complexities of Lingle’s story from the brief reference in the program’s dialogue — or if they just took it as a reference to a reporter who was killed over an expose.

For the details, see Chicago magazine’s November 2009 retrospective on the Lingle murder case, Prince of the City: The mysterious mob hit on 1920s Tribune reporter Jake Lingle.

Cast note: The boxing champ’s gravelly voice may be familiar. The actor is William Conrad, one of the hardest-working and most recognizable voices in 1940s and 1950s radio. He was also the original “Matt Dillon” on radio’s Gunsmoke, the portly detective “Frank Cannon” on television, and the city editor in the cryptically named 1959 newsroom melodrama “–30–” with Jack Webb. Conrad’s “It’s a newspaper, that’s all… the best buy for your money in the world” newspaper eulogy from that film still appears on YouTube and is in at least one popular introductory reporting textbook.

Technical note: At this writing, several collections of “Shorty Bell” episodes on the Internet have swapped the names of two programs, “Crooked Hero” and “Movie Script.” I’ve alerted the keepers of the sites; if they correct the filenames without my realizing it, my links to the individual episodes may not function any more. In that case, a visit to the Internet Archive’s Shorty Bell collection page may sort out the confusion.
The collectors also disagree on when this particular episode was broadcast (June 6, 13 or 20), and what to call it. “Crooked Hero” is also known as “State Prison Funeral” and “Growing Pains,” all supported by the plot and dialogue. Collectors may have estimated dates and composed their own names for episodes, then copied each other — sometimes adding typographical errors, or trusting newspapers’ printed program listings. Alas, I don’t have labelled transcription discs, a formal network broadcast log or library collection of titled scripts to refer to; perhaps they exist somewhere.
Using newspaper listings, the DigitalDeli research site moves the “Crooked Hero” (“Growing Pains”) episode up to June 6 (other collectors say 13 or 20) and lists a missing episode on June 20, while the others say the June 6 show is the missing one. They all agree the final episode was the last week in June. It is variously titled “Shorty Scoops Photographer,” “Rival Girl Photographer” or “Winnie Lane, Ace Photographer” and listed as being broadcast on June 26 in the Internet Archive (which would be a change in the broadcast’s day of the week) or on the 27th, which Digital Deli says is supported by published newspaper listings.

For now, the link at the top of this page should play the “Crooked Hero” episode from a file named “Movie Script.” If it actually plays a farce about Shorty writing a movie script, the file-name error has been corrected by the Internet Archive.

The intended (Crooked Hero) episode’s opening line: “With me and the newspaper business, it was a case of love at first sight. On my part, anyway…”

The wrong (Movie Script) episode’s opening line: “When I first got into the newspaper business, I didn’t know a comma from an apostrophe. Don Robard, my managing editor said he was hiring me for my curiosity and my brass, not for my writing ability…”

Previous Shorty Bell post

Shorty Bell overview page-in-progress

Posted in 1940s, editors, ethics, newspapers, reporters, stereotypes | Leave a comment

Mickey Rooney’s newspaper days — on radio

Mickey Rooney stillMickey Rooney, who died Sunday at 93, was most famous for playing scrappy, funny and musical young men in the 1930s and ’40s.

His starring role in this spring 1948 radio drama didn’t have any “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” musical numbers, but it put his tough city kid persona in a memorable newspaper title role, as “Shorty Bell, Cub Reporter” (first episode, MP3).

The series didn’t take off, perhaps suffering from part of the post-war career lull Variety mentioned in Rooney’s obituary: “The very qualities that had made him an appealing child star now began to grate. His energetic cockiness seemed forced and egotistical in an adult.” The series began at the end of March and was replaced by a musical variety series in July, but a few sample episodes have made it into collectors’ archives online.

That energy and cockiness were certainly characteristics that suited Shorty Bell, a World War II vet convinced that he has printer’s ink in his blood. But Rooney’s charm and self-effacing sense of humor come through too.

Shorty’s father, the character tells us, was a Linotype operator, and from him the young man inherited a passion for the news and a dedication to his father’s paper, which he delivered as a boy before going off to war. However, at the series’ start, the closest he has come to the newsroom is the driver’s seat of a newspaper delivery truck.

In this premiere he wangles a brief interview with his hero the editor, Don Robard, played by John Hoyt, which turns out to be a job-hunter’s nightmare. But he sums up his attitude in a sentence, “I’ll keep coming back.”

Shorty may not have news training and his “nose for news” needs some refining, but he has a classic naive enthusiasm for the news business — a characteristic popular in fiction, if not in all newsrooms. Richard Harding Davis wrote about it a half century earlier in “The Reporter Who Made Himself King“:

“Now, you cannot pay a good reporter for what he does, because he does not work for pay. He works for his paper. He gives his time, his health, his brains, his sleeping hours, and his eating hours, and sometimes his life, to get news for it. He thinks the sun rises only that men may have light by which to read it.”

Although there are only a few episodes in the Internet Archive radio collection, I think “Shorty Bell” is worth a listen. I’ve started an overview page about the series here, and will be back with quotes and discussion of other episodes.

This opening episode, dated March 28, 1948, is described by the announcer as a “premiere” and in some radio archives is labeled “aud” for “audition.” There is no studio audience, unlike the later episodes. The program is to be a “continuing novel written especially for radio…” and, as that suggests, the first-episode ending is a cliff-hanger, with Shorty’s hope for a reporting position hanging in the balance. Unfortunately, the available episodes do not include the second one, although it’s obvious from the later episodes that Shorty did land his job as a cub reporter, along with taking some night school classes.

According to the Buffalo Courier-Express for March 28, 1948, the program was conceived as a continuing “novel for radio,” to be written by two Hollywood writers who were former newspapermen, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and Richard Carroll. Brennan also had written Rooney’s film “Killer McCoy.”

Critics’ opinions of the debut were mixed. Seymour Peck of the New York tabloid “PM” was caustic:

“It was, in fact, a little shocking to have a highly touted radio show make its debut parading an utterly trite, uninteresting situation and a trite, lifeless set of characters. There wasn’t a surprise anywhere in the half hour…. Only Mickey, selling his own lively personality, giving vitality and warmth to a very deficient script, made the show tolerable.”

The episodes dated as being broadcast in June 1948 abandoned the cliff-hanger format and the original writers. Each broadcast presented a full story in a half-hour, with more attempts at comedy, although they do carry through the theme of Shorty learning his way around the newspaper job. They also have live-audience reactions, including loud laughter that sometimes seems to be prompted by things the audience saw, not heard.

While there are only four downloadable files at the Internet Archive’s “Shorty Bell Cub Reporter” page online, the computer file names and actual program names have been swapped between the episodes titled “Movie Script” and “Crooked Hero.”

In the more melodramatic plot, “Crooked Hero,” Shorty is sent to cover a gangster’s funeral, but a chance encounter on the train leads to a sports corruption story he’d rather not tell.

In the actual “Movie Script” episode, Shorty has written a newsroom-drama on the side, but an agent sells it to Hollywood as a Lassie-type dog adventure, based on doggedly reading just the title. Meanwhile, his editor insists that anything written on company time belongs to the newspaper anyway.

J.David Goldin’s “Radiogoldindex.com” list of his pioneer radio collection shows an additional “first episode,” which is not in the Internet Archive files.

The Digital Deli Too Definitive Shorty Bell Radio Log with Mickey Rooney and William N. Robson features a longer episode list and some different dates, based on extensive research on Rooney’s radio appearances as well as the show itself. It lists cast and staff, newspaper program logs, and write-ups from radio trade magazines to document the shifts in plot, crew and format.

Posted in 1940s, newspapers, reporters | Leave a comment

Classified ads become news

The Green Hornet Strikes

The Green Hornet Strikes — from 1940, A Better Little Book available at the Internet Archive

Page one news wasn’t the only part of the newspaper to make it into radio dramas. This story begins in the back pages — the classified ad section.

That’s where Lenore Case, secretary to the editor of The Daily Sentinel, is browsing ads for engagement rings in the opening scene — but not because of romance. Editor and publisher Britt Reid has received several letters from readers who answered an “engagement ring” ad and only when it was too late realized that the ad and the seller never explicitly said the ring was a diamond.

It’s not just crooked, it’s unpatriotic: In this 1946 broadcast, the swindlers’ targets are recently discharged World War II veterans. Reid has reporter Michael Axford read one of the letters:

“The police say there’s nothing can be done about it since the person who sold it to me didn’t say it was a diamond. So I’ve been gypped in a racket that the police can’t touch. I’m surprised a newspaper like yours would carry ads like that. – (signed) an ex-G.I.

Naturally, Reid says he will cancel the misleading ad. He sends Axford to pose as a prospective buyer to find out how the ring racket works — although he admits the racketeers have been too clever to be pursued by the law. While the newspaper might expose the racket, it can’t put the careful crooks in jail without the help of the editor’s alter-ego, The Green Hornet.

Coincidentally, Reid has another “inside the law” wrongdoer in his sights — a corrupt politician. So, with typical Hornet guile, he pretends to be a crook himself and turns the two wrong-doers against each other to put both in jail.

He breaks into the swindlers’ office and steals their stock of worthless rings, but leaves evidence implicating the politician to trick the ring swindlers into believing the he is the Hornet. They break into the politician’s house, hoping to both retrieve their property and collect a reward for turning the Hornet over to the police.

Of course they don’t find any Hornet paraphernalia at the politician’s house. But they do catch him with his safe open — full of evidence of the unrelated graft case. Their break-in triggers an alarm; Axford, accompanying the police, identifies the racketeers; the racketeers point out the graft evidence on a table in plain view.

Fortunately the 30 minute radio episode didn’t have to spend much time on laws of evidence — it suggests the arrival of the police led everyone to confess their wrong-doing.

As far as journalism lessons, this episode is pretty much limited to the continuing theme of a newspaper working to help the average citizen by exposing rackets and corrupt politicians, and perhaps a theme of
newspaper teamwork — Miss Case’s research, Axford’s undercover reporting and Reid’s editorial decision making.

The ethically scrupulous listener will notice that Reid’s executive approach includes a willingness to break laws in order to get evidence, tactics not recommended by the Society for Professional Journalists. But — as usual — Reid leaves that to his alter-ego wearing the Hornet mask, not to any press-card carrying members of the Sentinel staff.

JHeroes main Green Hornet page

Posted in 1940s, GreenHornet, newspapers | Leave a comment

More on radio-film adaptations – and a bit of Libel

Just when I thought I had a nice round figure — 50 radio adaptations of Hollywood films about journalists — I discovered that two movies I had already written about weren’t on the master list, which includes quite a few I haven’t gotten around to describing in detail. And I found that one was on the original list in error.

So, for now, the list has 51 titles — usually with journalists as heroes, villains or major characters.

courtroom scene with wife, barrister, and husband

Olivia de Haviland, bewigged Robert Morley and Dirk Bogarde in the eventual 1959 film of  LIbel

This one, a courtroom-drama titled “Libel,” is a special case in several ways. The journalist implied in the story’s name doesn’t even appear — but a Gazette newspaper slam inspired by a blackmailer-turned-whistle-blower is at the root of the libel case. Some 16 years after World War I, a British nobleman sues over a story calling him an imposter — a Canadian who killed the Englishman and stole his identity when they escaped from a German prison camp together.

If there’s a journalism lesson here, it’s “be careful of your sources.” And the scandal-mongering Gazette may remind you of some contemporary British tabloids currently appearing in court over playing checkbook journalism and breaking other rules to get its stories. At least there were no cell phones to tap in the 1930s.

This story itself is full of suspense — as circumstantial evidence stacks up against the shell-shocked “Sir Mark Loddon, Bart. M.P.” The radio series Lux Presents Hollywood liked the plot enough to bring star Ronald Colman back to present it again in just two years. (The 1943 script may show some improvements, but I haven’t compared them line by line.)

As a radio adaptation, another remarkable thing about “Libel” is that it went from Broadway to television in the 1930s — but didn’t make it to the movie screen until 1959! More on that, an unlikely Frankenstein connection, and a link to the 1943 version, below.

Back to my adaptation list update: I also discovered that one “movie” I’d listed apparently was an original radio play: An episode of Stars Over Hollywood titled “The Love Tree,” now moved to the Soap Operas and Romances page. It’s not a great drama, but the plot would have made a decent B-movie. It has a spunky woman photojournalist, a city editor with a sentimental streak behind a gruff exterior (think “Lou Grant”), a star reporter who can be a dope about love, and a surprise appearance by an autographed copy of one-time journalist Walt Whitman‘s classic volume of poetry, Leaves of Grass!

(If I’m wrong and there was a film version, earlier or later, please let me know!)

I guess when I put that one on the “adaptations” page I was just assuming from its name that “Stars Over Hollywood” was an anthology of movie plots.

It also dawned on me that the adaptations page should mention radio series that inspired movie adaptations, rather than the more common cases where movies came first. So you’ll find a quick mention of a few newspaper-related radio dramas that led to films and TV series – SupermanThe Green HornetThe Big Story and Big Town, which already have their own JHeroes sections.

I’ve also added a note that some items listed are slight variations on the theme — the radio version may not have been adapted from a film, but had a common ancestor in a play or novel that also inspired a film or television program.

Perhaps unique in that regard is “Libel,” a powerful drama produced twice by Lux Radio Theater – in 1941 and 1943, both times with Ronald Colman. It was a 1936 Broadway hit by  Edward Wooll, adapted for television for BBC TV in 1938 before it made it to the big screen! If my research is correct, it wasn’t made into a feature film until 1959, when Dirk Bogarde and Olivia de Haviland starred.

I haven’t seen the film, but it’s too bad that the radio plays don’t give us a scandalmonger British tabloid journalist as a villain. Instead, the hero’s main antagonists are the blackmail-minded fellow prisoner and the newspaper’s defense attorney — played in both adaptations by Otto Kruger, who also appeared in a number of newspaper movies, including Scandal Sheet (1939) and Power of the Press (1943).

On Broadway, “Libel” was staged by Otto Ludwig Preminger and starred Colin Clive, perhaps best known as Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 “Frankenstein” and 1935 “Bride of Frankenstein” — one of seven films he made that year before the December opening of “Libel” on Broadway, where it ran for 159 performances, according to IBDB.

Posted in 1940s, adaptations, Europe, television | Leave a comment

Covering a war, start to finish, with a Soldier of the Press

The Old Time Radio Researchers Group collection of the United Press radio drama “Soldiers of the Press” at the Internet Archive contains fewer than half the episodes of this World War II series, but so far the reporter best represented in the set is not Walter Cronkite or some other household name — he’s a correspondent named Robert V. Vermillion.

VermillionThis “Atlantic Convoy” radio program about two U.P. men on their way to London echoes their published story at the right, from the April 16, 1943, Pittsburgh Press, as preserved in Google’s newspaper archive under the headline “Passengers Stand Watch for Lurking Sub Packs.” It wasn’t the biggest war news of the day — buried all the way on page 22, next to another U.P. story by Harrison Salisbury with a map and a larger headline. There was even bigger U.P. news from the Pacific and North Africa on page one of that day’s 56-page paper. But the first-person story of war correspondents Vermillion and Robert Richards crossing the Atlantic made for good radio drama.

As the announcer says, it’s a “an eyewitness account… of one convoy’s battle with the U-boats, a vivid picture from their U.P. dispatches of the sort of thing that happens, unchronicled, almost any day or night, somewhere in the Atlantic.” The last few phrases of that sentence are almost verbatim from the newspaper story.

The radio play weaves-in other passengers playing cards and singing to keep their spirits up, adding dialogue to expand small points in the story. A reference to a “dawn watch” becomes a conversation between a crewman and Vermillion about getting up early. A radio sound effects crew takes inspiration from the reporters’ more descriptive writing, such as this passage in the Pittsburgh paper:

“… the passengers organized 24-hour watches to relieve the weary crew. We stood two of them, watching brilliant bursts of star shells lighting the convoy whenever a sub’s presence was suspected. On a dawn watch we saw the spectacular battle of the torpedoes.
“The action began in the gray before dawn. A ship to our starboard started streaming machine-gun bullets into the water a few feet off our stern. The tracers bounced like brilliant orange balls, ricocheting across the water, clanging into the ship’s side and ripping past our heads.”

“Soldiers of the Press” was a “stories behind the stories” series recorded by actors in a stateside studio while the real reporters were overseas, so any voices you hear saying “This is Robert Vermillion” in the various episodes probably aren’t him — but they still outline the tale of a reporter’s career, which took him from New York to Africa, Greece, Italy, France and Germany during the war. (Update: In an email, Vermillion’s son Bob tells me his dad recalled recording a few stories, and that it’s possible his actual voice could be part of some broadcasts.)

Vermillion continued with U.P. in Miami during peacetime, then became a war correspondent again in Korea, and remained in Okinawa to run a newspaper there with his wife for several years. Later he returned to the U.S. and worked for Newsweek for 20 years. He died in 1987, at 72, according to his U.P.I. obituary, which is also my source for some of these biographical details.

The radio series documents his entry into being a war correspondent — sailing to Europe with U.P. colleague Robert Richards in that episode titled “Atlantic Convoy.” His other dramatized stories include “Anzio Diary,” a compilation of features about life among U.S. troops after the Allies established their beachhead in Italy, followed by “The Road to Rome.”

U.P.’s approach to dramatizing its courageous reporters “stories behind the stories” is best represented by its account of Vermillion’s first parachute jump, when he volunteered to accompany paratroopers on a 2 a.m. mission into Southern France — with 45 minutes of training.

“What’s on your mind, another scoop for the United Press?” a colonel asks him.

“Excuse me for saying this, Mr. Vermillion, but you’re nuts,” a serviceman adds when he hears of the plan.

Later, two officers discuss the newsman’s motivation…

“Thirsting for a little excitement,” says one.
>> “After what he went through in Italy?”
“Yes, he wants more. This time he’ll really get it.”

The “what he went through in Italy” reference is well represented in two other “Soldiers of the Press” episodes (downloadable below), and perhaps more that are not in the Internet archives. Vermillion also appears in one of the last European Front episodes of the series, “Prisoner of War,” in which he is sent to bring back U.P. reporter Edward Beattie from the German prison camp where he was held in 1945. It’s a scene Beattie also recounted in his autobiographical Diary of a Kriegie.

While a search for Vermillion’s byline in several news archives didn’t produce any stories about Beattie’s release, it did turn up his chilling 1945 accounts of the liberation of another prison camp, and of American troops bringing German civilians to see the mass graves of prisoners murdered as the Allies approached — then enlisting the Germans to help identify and re-bury bodies.

And while the online archive search did not uncovered Vermillion’s “Soldiers of the Press” story about a wedding being interrupted at the Anzio beachhead, it did find a four-column photo of his own 29th birthday party at the base of operations in Italy. The caption read, “Celebrators Pick Up Where They Left Off: Robert Vermillion, correspondent, left, had a real “bang-up” twenty-ninth birthday celebration in Naples, when a Nazi bomb interrupted the proceedings…”

Vermillion on Soldiers of the Press
The following are downloadable episodes at the Internet Archive:

43-05-16 (028) Robert Vermillion – Atlantic Convoy
(also features UP’s Robert W. Richards)
11.6 MB
44-05-07 (079) Robert Vermillion – Anzio Diary 10.4 MB
44-07-02 (087) Robert Vermillion – The Road To Rome 11.2 MB
44-09-24 (099) Robert Vermillion – The Paratroopers 10.9 MB
45-06-17 (137) Robert Vermillion in closing scene of “Eddie Beattie – Prisoner Of War” 10.7 MB

Editor’s note:
Tracing connections between U.P.’s published stories and the “Soldiers of the Press” broadcasts can be tricky, since the radio episodes did not mention the original articles or the dates on which they were filed. They may have been aired weeks, even months, after the news was reported in print; individual radio stations may have fit the programs into their schedule at different times. The “behind the scenes” feature-style treatment suited this arrangement. In the case of “Atlantic Convoy,” based on a news story published in April 1943, the Old Time Radio Researchers collection dates the program was broadcast in May. J. David Goldin and Digital Deli found indications it was broadcast by some stations in July. (Collectors’ dating could be based on estimates, transcription disk labels, newspaper broadcast logs, or the names of MP3 files of uncertain provenance circulated on the Internet.)

For more about the series, see the JHeroes.com “Soldiers of the Press” page and links on that page.

Posted in 1940s, foreign correspondents, Soldiers of the Press, true stories, United Press, World War II | Leave a comment

Little Orphan Annie in the newsroom

Popular radio series characters of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s often visited or were visited by newspaper reporters and editors. Little Orphan Annie, decades before her Broadway debut, paid a visit to a local editor on the occasion of her birthday in 1935.

Of course a community’s outpouring of affection for the spunky orphan would be worth a story — even if her birthday present from Daddy Warbucks wasn’t a thinly veiled cue to hawk birthstone rings –as well as Ovaltine– to the kiddies back home.

The birthday party story spans four days in this collection at the Internet archive:


(The single episode player on this page is the second 15 minute segment in the storyline.)

While it’s not as adventurous a view of a journalism career as young listeners got from Superman or The Green Hornet, this group of episodes with Annie’s local weekly editor did give kids a hint of an idealized role of the newspaper in the community. In this case, the friendly editor brings together Annie and a businessman who needs her help — among other things, to keep paying his bill for newspaper ads! The editor’s conversation with Annie explains a bit about newspaper economics…

“That’s what I usually do after the paper comes out — spend the next couple of days collecting for the advertising.” — Mr. Caslon, the editor

And, of course, Annie herself was a child of the newspapers — a hit radio serial (1930-42) with millions of listeners, based on a hit newspaper comic strip (1924-2010). See more of Annie’s history at Wikipedia.

Note: This is my first attempt posting an item here using the WordPress iPad app. I will be back to edit it and add additional links.

Posted in 1930s, adventure, children, comics, editors, local news | Leave a comment

A Risky Resolution to Start a Big Town New Year

Begin with a murderous hood named “Silky,” add a stripper named “Bubbles,” and introduce crusading newspaper editor trying to help a cleaning woman’s son, and you have just a few of the cliches in this “Big Town” story, “The Dangerous Resolution.” There’s not a lot of journalism going on, but it’s still fun.

The 1949 new year’s resolution in the title comes from a character named Van, a World War II vet who learned to drive heavy-duty trucks in the Army. He promises to quit driving for the bad guy and marry his waitress girlfriend — after New Year’s Eve and a predictably ill-fated “one last job.”

Fortunately, Van’s mother scrubs floors at the Big Town Illustrated Press, so she can enlist its editor’s aid without even taking out a classified ad like the floor-scrubbing mother in “Call Northside 777.”

Steve Wilson is the editor — the one who loudly declares his journalistic creed in the opening sequence of each broadcast:

“The power and the freedom of the press is a flaming sword. That it may be a faithful servant of all the people, use it justly, hold it high, guard it well.”

Wilson’s weekly affirmation was one of radio’s strongest endorsements of newspaper journalism, probably still remembered by more than one young listener who eventually started carrying a press card. (You know who you are.)

But other than the series’ opening slogan, there’s precious little journalism practiced in episodes like this one. It’s one of many where someone comes looking for help, leading Big Town’s newspaper editor to track down a criminal and bring him to justice — without touching pencil, pen or typewriter.

If nothing else “Big Town” assured listeners that newspapers, or their two-fisted editors, were there to help the little guy. And perhaps the fictional plots did alert some to real rackets or social needs, in this case schemes to exploit returning veterans, or their difficulties settling down to a normal civilian life.

The series “Big Town” had started in 1937 with Hollywood star Edward Robinson playing editor Wilson as a reformed tabloid hack turned into a crusading community do-gooder, exposing unsafe coal mines and corrupt reform schools, and crusaded against drunk and reckless driving enough to win the show real-life transportation safety awards. (Wilson also went to Europe to help his foreign correspondents early in World War II.)

By December 1948, when this episode was broadcast, Robinson sound-alike Edward Pawley had played Wilson longer than the role’s creator. The plots were often routine crime dramas relying heavily on the established characters — the editor, his star reporter Lorelei, cab driver Harry the Hack, and one or two others. Lorelei had evolved from society editor to sob-sister to crime reporter.

Even a villain like Silky could sum up the editor in a line:

“A newspaper guy? You’re not that racket-busting rat of the ‘Illustrated Press,’ Steve Wilson?!”

Even juvenile series like “The Adventures of Superman” and “The Green Hornet” actually gave their newspaper characters more realistic reporting tasks — tracking down sources, following leads, interviewing, taking notes, and looking for news angles. Other series used their reporter characters as narrators, but “Big Town” was more about getting the crook than getting the story. The episodes still involved some social crusading — for safe driving, against drugs, etc. — but in the show’s later years, more often than not Wilson and Lorelei just tracked down an evil doer, put one or both of themselves in jeopardy in the process, outwitted and disarmed the bad guy, then called the police.

Wilson didn’t carry a gun, but he did throw a few punches. His cab driver pal offered backup with a trusty monkey wrench. Mostly, Pawley’s Wilson was tough, brave and smarter than any crook — not entirely a journalistic job description, but not bad for any pop-culture hero. The scripts had some film-noir rhetorical flourishes, even if they often sounded like comic-strip word balloons more than news writing.

“Come on, Wilson, save your big talk for the crabs in the river…” – Silky

This episode has Wilson delivering memorable lines like these:

  • “I’m the ‘counter cowboy’ who followed your girl from the Sunshine Diner…”
  • “I’m going to talk that gun right out of your hand…”
  • “We’re going to show Silky that the mind can be quicker than the trigger finger…”
  • “It’s all a triumph of mind over murder-madness…”

While earlier stories sometimes spanned episodes, these later tales by writer-producer Jerry McGill fit into a single half-hour, sandwiched between Lifeboy and Rinso commercials.

Despite the predictable plot patterns, the show stayed high in the ratings, spawning a series of films, a comic book and even an early TV series. On radio, it ran from 1937 to 1952 with a brief break and change of networks when Robinson left.

Where’s the journalism?

Wilson finally gets in one positive statement for responsible journalism after he has rounded up Silky and Bubbles. He tells Harry the Hack that as soon as the police take charge of the prisoners, reporter Lorelei will be able to get the whole story into the next day’s early edition.

“Holy moly, boss! Ain’t you gettin’ out an extra?” – Harry the Hack.

“No, no, Harry. The capture of one vicious killer doesn’t roll the pressses any more than it stops crime. The real story here is Van’s resolve to get out of the rackets.” – Steve Wilson

Well, the story also will have to include a hijacking, one murder and five more attempted murders. There could be another journalism drama here. I wish we got to hear how Lorelei would weave her report to make the truck driver the real hero — so that he can dodge a jail sentence, marry his girlfriend, and save his mother from a life of floor-scrubbing at the Illustrated Press.

For more about Big Town:

  • JHeroes Big Town page, with numerous links and references.
  • Big Town page at Jim Ramsburg’s GOldTime Radio, including details on ratings, sponsors, cast and networks. (Ramsburg is also the author of Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953: A History of Prime Time Programs Through The Ratings of Hooper, Crossley and Nielsen.)
  • IMDB on the Big Town TV Series
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