Two-fisted editor hits reform school scandal

News about a real-life judge sentenced to jail for taking kickbacks from a for-profit jail reminded me of this Big Town episode, with crusading editor Steve Wilson sending a 17-year-old copyboy undercover to expose a corrupt and barbaric reformatory.

“A hell-hole under the control of a political grafter,” is how Wilson describes the reform school.

The “Reform School” episode recording, stored at the Old-Time Radio Researchers Group’s, is apparently a rehearsal for a 1939 broadcast, with Hollywood stars Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor as editor and star reporter. 

Along with the investigative reporting plot, there’s a sexism subplot; prison officials open doors for Trevor’s reporter Lorelei Kilbourne simply because of her good looks… and underestimate her journalistic abilities in the process. Trevor, playing a social worker turned reform-minded journalist, delivers great sarcastic dialog with the sleazy warden and fine angry speeches to her editor, including the line “If that’s true something ought to be done about it!” 

Result: Editor Wilson gets a 30-day contempt-of-court sentence for a crusading editorial.
Wilson eventually gets full cooperation from the prosecutor and judge; he even has himself deputized to go undercover at the school, posing as an official bringing back a runaway inmate — and apparently is  empowered to sock the corrupt school superintendent on the jaw. 

Especially during its early years, “Big Town” was a great example of an effective, reform-minded newspaper — while its star reporter helped the editor reform himself from his sensational tabloid past. In this case, after  the presses roll, the result is better public funding for the juvenile detention system. The judge not only drops Wilson’s contempt charge, but gets the alderman to double funding for a gentler orphanage-type facility. 

And Wilson announces that he’s taking all the paroled kids to the Illustrated Press’s own summer camp, in a speech that hints this was to be the last broadcast of the season before its summer vacation. With Claire Trevor as the co-star, that places the episode around July 4, 1939, even though the opening commercial touts a “new 1940 Rinso.” Ona Munson replaced Trevor when the program resumed in September 1939, according to news clippings unearthed by the Digital Deli radio research blog.
I wish the radio collectors’ website had some history on this recording, possibly from Robinson’s own archives. An announcer jokes, “This is the Edward G. Robinson broadcasting system,” instead of “Columbia…” at the end, and there is one “retake” for the star to correct his reading in a courtroom scene.

Few recordings of Robinson’s actual live broadcasts exist. He played Steve Wilson for the first six seasons of “Big Town,” then left the show — which ran another nine years with Ed Pauley as its star. There were comic book, movie and TV spin-offs from the radio hit. For more about the series, see the links on the JHeroes Big Town page.

Posted in 1930s, Drama, newspaper crusades, newspapers, undercover | Leave a comment

Custer’s stand in the Pacific: An injured Soldier of the Press

This episode of the United Press World War II radio series Soldiers of the Press covers reporter Joe James Custer’s service from Pearl Harbor through the sinking of a U.S. Navy cruiser he was assigned to in the Solomon Islands — and leaves him in a hospital bed after being injured in the story’s climactic August 1942 sea battle.

Custer may have been back in the hospital at the time of the November broadcast. A newspaper clip shows him smiling with nurses between surgeries in September, but he apparently never regained the vision in that eye. He was eventually awarded the Purple Heart, according to a 1945 item in the Pittsburgh Press.
“With my good eye I saw a great deal of courage and grit,” the actor playing Custer in the radio play says, describing a captain wounded 11 times who continued to command the evacuation of his ship, the Astoria. It sank Aug. 9, 1942.

Dated Nov. 30, 1942, in the Internet Archive’s Old-Time Radio Researchers Soldiers of the Press collection, Custer’s dramatized biography is listed as the fourth broadcast in the United Press series. It went into details on the motivation, preparation and outfitting of a war correspondent, as well as making clear the courage it took to volunteer for dangerous assignments.

A veteran newspaperman in San Francisco and Hawaii, Custer joined the United Press wire service in Honolulu shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Well, I’d asked for action and action is what I got,” he says, describing being introduced to his first incendiary-resistant flame jacket, goggles,  gas-resistant outfit, gas mask, tin hat and life jacket.

Custer covered the U.S. bombing of Marcus and Wake Islands in February and March, 1942, before heading to the Solomon Islands, where his ship, the cruiser Astoria, was crippled and sank. In addition to Custer’s own reports, the radio drama quotes a Honolulu Star Bulletin story about the injured reporter, and the courage and commitment of war correspondents in general.

As is usual with Soldiers of the Press episodes, the cast, producers and writers are not identified, including the narrator and the actor voicing Custer’s descriptions of battle scenes.

Custer told the story of that Solomon Islands fight in his 1944 book, Through the Perilous Night: The Astoria’s Last Battle. He returned to United Press after his hospitalization, working both in the Pacific and in New York, where he did some sports writing as well as finishing his book, judging by his United Press bylined stories in the Google archive of scanned newspapers. He later wrote for the Honolulu Star Bulletin, then joined the staff of a USS Arizona memorial commission, according to his obituary, published in 1965.

Newspaper clips via Google archive:

Writer finds sailor’s slang has undergone streamlining, early UP story by Custer

Wake and Marcus islands story, by Custer

Solomon Islands story filed the day before his injury

Admiral Nimitz visits Custer at hospital

Operation may save eye, Sept. 23, 1942

Custer dispatch from his hospital bed

Custer’s injury and disappearance of INS reporter share AP story

Custer filler feature on aircraft carriers, October 1942, Victoria Advocate

Custer to receive purple heart, 1945

Death claims correspondent, 1965 obituary

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

The typewriter, and the woman who invented a career

The Reluctant Pioneer isn’t specifically about journalism, but it certainly is related — the story of the invention of the typewriter, told in traditional “who, what, when, where” order by the woman who first made it run.

book cover -- Woman's PlaceThis radio drama — part of a series that romanticized American invention and ideals — features the creation and marketing of the first model Remington. Entrepreneur James Densmore is also a focus of the story, cajoling inventors Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden into changing the world of communication, and pitching the invention to the Remington company.

The fact that Sholes started out as a Wisconsin newspaperman is mentioned early in the radioplay, but his daughter takes center stage, while Sholes is portrayed more as an eccentric who undervalues his own invention. Vivacious June Havoc narrates the story in the role of Lillian Sholes, who became the first star demonstrator of the typewriting machine. The perhaps not terribly suspense-filled climax of the radio story is her 1870s competition with the “hand-writing champion of America.”

“A woman operating a machine — that’s very unusual,” Mr. Remington comments. And the first typewriter advertisement, at least as read during the program, promotes the completed machine as a device that will open a new occupation for women.

You also get to hear some of Remington customer Mark Twain’s early comments on using the machine, and Densmore’s pitch to Remington for the speed-writing competition.

“This contest will either put the typewriter across — or bury it so deep the devil will start typing his diary.”

The Cavalcade of America broadcast was recorded in 1951. For a more modern and scholarly treatment of the sociological and cultural impact of the writing machine, see Woman’s Place Is At The Typewriter (1984) by Margery W. Davies. Skill at the keyboard was not all it took to put women in the newsroom as reporters and editors, not just typists, but it certainly played a part. For more about two women who found their way in the turn-of-the-century newspaper world, see the Newspaper Heroes on the Air entry about former newspaper-woman Edna Ferber’s novel “Cimarron,” and its movie and radio adaptations.

Interesting footnote: Documents unearthed by radio historian Martin Grams reveal that an actual Remington #1 was used for typewriter sounds during the Sholes broadcast.

For a more comprehensive view of the many inventors of typewriters, see the Library of Congress article and links, The Typewriter – “that almost sentient mechanism” by Ellen Terrell.

Business and public relations researchers also might note that Cavalcade’s sponsor, DuPont, had more than a passing interest in the Remington name. While the Remington company sold off its typewriter business in the 1880s to a new firm that still used the name, the original Remington had continued its focus on weapons-manufacturing in 1933, when historic gunpowder-maker E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., Inc., purchased a 60% share of the company.

(For more about the DuPont-sponsored radio series episodes that featured journalists, I have separate Newspaper Heroes on the Air: Cavalcade of America pages in the works, including a version of this item that may be edited or expanded in the future.)

Posted in 19th century, cavalcade, historical figures, technology | Leave a comment

Hey Lucky, get me rewrite!

My cousin in Memphis just told me she heard an episode of the classic series called “Night Beat” recently on a satellite radio show made up of golden age broadcasts.

I told her she’d found one of my favorites, and pointed her to my Night Beat page, where I’ve been aggregating my blog posts and notes about individual episodes. In the process,  I noticed that tomorrow is the 65th  anniversary of the first dated episode in the Internet Archive collections, one that I hadn’t written about before.

So here it is:

Sometimes identified as star Frank Lovejoy’s “audition” recording, it’s the only episode where his newpaper-noir columnist is named “Lucky Stone” instead of “Randy Stone,” and his paper is “The Examiner” instead of the “Chicago Star.” In the archives, it’s called 500113_Elevator_Caper.mp3

The title is from a dramatic scene that finds the hero playing cat and mouse with a killer in a Chicago skyscraper.

The series got rolling with the permanent names on Feb. 6, according to collectors logs, with another Chicago skyscraper playing a featured role memorable episode titled “Zero.” I will write something about that one later. (In it, an announcer introduces Lovejoy’s character as “Rudy,” but he’s agreed on “Randy” by the closing credits. Yes, radio drama was live, transcribed to discs, not to more editable audio tape.)

The “Lucky” audition — was it ever aired, or just recorded for prospective sponsors? — was eventually rewritten to change the names of reporter and paper.That version was broadcast a few months later; one archive copy calls its recording

The “Lucky” script explains his nickname. The Randy script does not. We will assume it is just short for Randolph. The other kind of randiness was not a regular feature of the program. On the other hand, some listeners might have been amused by an adaptation of the original name passage:

“Lucky Stone is the name. I’m the guy that writes that column that’s buried somewhere in the middle of your Examiner, called Night Beat.
“They call me ‘Lucky’ for the same reason they call a fat man ‘Slim.’ Because the best you can hope for on a job like this is chronic bronchitis, rings under your eyes, and the fact that you’re awake when regular folk are asleep.
“Sometimes the worst happens to you, a story grabs your heart and shakes it until you holler uncle. A corpse in a dark alley is the business at hand… ”

Students of script-writing might want to carefully compare the two versions of the programs to see how the writer eliminated the “Lucky” references and generally tightens the script. They might discuss the half-hour-broadcast economy of giving the newspaper a name of one syllable instead of three. Acting students might listen for differences in interpretation. English majors and other students of writing will enjoy the colorful writing, with echoes of the more poetic pulp fiction.

For journalism students, Night Beat is sometimes interesting as a “newspaperman procedural,” good for classroom discussion of Stone’s work process, his professionalism, his personal life, and the changes in the business over more than a half century — assuming that the radio drama had some relationship to reality.

Whether the hero is Lucky or Randy, this first script is more detective story then some later Night Beat melodramas. The police aren’t very interested in the murder of a 28-year-old they brand as a hoodlum.

The reporter has his own motivation for investigating the case. The dead man is an old friend, whom he had convinced to go straight. As part of his investigation, partly fueled by guilt over putting his friend on the wrong side of the mob, he eventually uses his column to publicly identify the gangster he thinks is responsible.

Could a reporter, even in 1950 Chicago, get that libellous an attack past the copy desk and keep his job? Could he survive mob retaliation?  For the answers to those questions, you will have to listen to the episode — either version — and maybe dig into a media law history book or two.

Movie fans will probably have a crooked smile on their faces when one of the villainous gangsters in this episode is mentioned. In the first version of the boadcast, his name is repeated several times in a conversation between Stone and a cop, “George Bailey,” like the troubled hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Maybe someone noticed. The revised script takes out the “George.”

The revised May broadcast is still a detective story, but the rewrite also gives Stone an introductory speech that sets the tone for later episodes, far from the crusading crime-busting reporters of “Big Town,” “Crime Photographer” and similar radio series.

In 21st century marketing parlance, this passage from “The Elevator Caper” sounds like an “elevator pitch” proposal for the entire series:

“They call my Night Beat stories human interest, which means after you’ve struggled through the latest atom bomb scare, the latest spy scare, the latest murder, the latest slaughter on the highway, you come to page 17 and Randy Stone.
“I’m supposed to give you a little breather, some nice simple human story to make you believe no matter how tough things are, the world has a heart. Only once in a while it doesn’t always work out just  that way. Human interest. Hmm. Oh yeah…”

Posted in 1950s, adaptations, Chicago, columnists, Drama, ethics, reporters, writing | Leave a comment

How do you know so much, paperboy?

“How do you know so much, paperboy?” — Detective Danny Clover to reporter Jed Stacy.

“Broadway is My Beat” was a mystery series broadcast from February 1949 to August 1954 by the same CBS network that brought audiences Crime Photographer. This time, the “beat” in question is a police beat, not the newspaper kind, but I’m skimming through the episodes for stories where the police detective crosses paths with journalists.

Here’s the first. The style is “radio noir” or “radio pulp fiction,” with prose so purple it borders on self-parody, about the street that Detective Danny Clover considers “the gaudiest, most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world.”

In this Aug. 11, 1949, episode Larry Thor played the detective as a tough-guy cop didn’t have a high opinion of newspaperman Jed Stacy, calling him a “scandal reporter for a rag that reports scandals.”

The Jane Darnell Murder Case” is a serial killer investigation that begins with an anonymous tip to the reporter that a woman by that name will be murdered that night. Reporter Stacy has the article all written before he invites his friend Clover to dinner and finally gives him the murderer’s note. While they are still at the table, he gets a call that the woman’s body has been found.

“Why didn’t you give me this before?” Clover says. “You’d play nursemaid to a murder for a beat, wouldn’t you, Jed? You’re gettin’ too large, kid; too large.”

Stacy makes no apologies.

Clover sounds angry, but Stacy isn’t about to be reformed. His large-living includes fancy cars and restaurants, but he does stay on top of everything — with a hint of the flash of New York’s original tell-all Broadway columnist, Walter Winchell.

Soon, the murderer is making phone calls to both Clover and Stacy. The next victim will be even harder to find, with the name “Mary Smith.” Eventually, not to spoil the suspense, she turns up with an icepick in her throat and a note announcing another victim to come.

That one is where Clover gets ahead of Stacy — even threatens him not to publish a tip about a third potential victim. However, the program’s writers didn’t pursue the press-police media relations theme any further. Casey, Crime Photographer, Randy Stone on Night Beat, and the real-life reporters on the series The Big Story seem to be even more cooperative with police.  Despite their conflicts, this detective and reporter pair seem to have a continuing — if antagonistic — relationship worthy of following in other episodes. However, so far I haven’t found any.

Classic radio collector J. David Goldin’s Broadway is My Beat RadioGoldindex entry has a short summary on each of 200 episodes, and identifies Morton Fine and David Friedkin as writers for the series. They are also credited at the end of the program. Goldin’s summary for this episode is the only one with the words “newspaper,” “reporter,” “columnist,” “editor,” “correspondent,” “journalist” or “tabloid” — my first search to track down portrayals of journalists for further research. But I’ll listen to more episodes, just in case — and if you enjoy the series and run across any newsmen or women, add a comment here.

The Old Time Radio Researcher’s Group has collected a half-dozen CDs of MP3 files for the series, with 169 stories on its single-episodes player/download page at the Internet Archive. I haven’t cross-referenced them to Goldin’s list, which includes some rebroadcasts of the CBS series by Armed Forces Radio.

(Note: Like too many website entry and MP3-collection filenames, the OTRRG copy of this episode has a misspelling — the name clearly voiced as “Darnell” in the program is entered as “Darwell.”)

Posted in 1940s, detectives, tabloids | 1 Comment

The bloodstained Chicago paper is a clue

Juke Box Melodrama

Newspapers as an “old media” technology survived the 1950s and struggled into the next century, but this May 1951 episode of Night Beat features a rarer form of communication — a coin-op juke box with a live d.j., a cross between a telephone switchboard operator and a radio announcer taking phone-in requests.

This story literally puts Randy Stone on the street, describing in colorful detail the noir sights and sounds of Chicago as he tries to find a story for the column.

(“The brittle laugh of a painted tootsie” is about as graphic as family-friendly fifties radio got about certain aspects of the Chicago night.)
Instead, this time he finds a melodramatic little human drama to share with us, possibly not with his readers in a way that would give away they story’s O. Henry ending to the parties involved — one of whom runs a sidewalk news stand, another disappearing media institution.

He also finds plenty of neon colors, sounds of jazz in the night, and — after a comment about keeping up with the competition — a Chicago Sun Times smeared in blood.

It’s worth a listen.

(In addition to Night Beat regular William Conrad — radio’s “Matt Dillon” and TV’s “Cannon” — the cast includes Betty Lou Gerson, a film, TV and voiceover actress perhaps best known as Cruella De Vil in Disney’s “101 Dalmatians.”)

Posted in Chicago, Drama, reporters | Leave a comment

What a reporter can do…

Clark Kent may have been Superman, but most of his early radio adventures opened with him hard at work as a newspaperman — in this case driving dangerously rain-soaked mountain roads in fog and hail to interview a scientist, on orders from his editor.

His assignment, and the radioplay title:
“Horace Morton’s Weather Predictions”

Kent may motor up the mountain, but in a later episode Superman comes flying down — to tell the police about a murder that he and Lois Lane have discovered, part of a complex tale that also involves kidnapping, a bank robbery, a radium plot, and an ecological disaster.

Lane, a tough veteran reporter critical of her colleague’s sudden stardom in the first weeks of the radio series, seems much friendlier to “Mr. Kent” in this June 1940 story — as the Adventures of Superman began its sixth month of broadcasting.

As they drive, she pleasantly forgives his very corny joke about hoping the rain “keeps up.” (If you don’t remember it from grade school, you will, five minutes into the broadcast.)

There is no conflict between the two, even before he saves her from drowning in a submerged car (in episode four of the six-part adventure). At that dramatic moment the two reporters — possibly a first — call each other by their first names, then quickly return to their more businesslike Mister and Miss.

At least Lois thinks it was Clark who pulled her, unconscious, from the wreck. At this point in the first year of the radio series, Superman is still keeping most of his super-deeds a secret.

Perhaps Lane is a more sympathetic character in this story because she has been placed in a situation that challenges her journalistic ethics: Editor Perry White has ordered Kent and Lane to investigate a relative of hers — her scientist uncle, a meteorologist whose weather predictions appear to be remarkably accurate.

And investigate they do. Early on, Kent even suspects him of that murder! After that, the plot thickens.

Another possibility is that the character of “Miss Lane,” as Kent still calls her, was simply sweetened a bit by the writers to coincide with a change in cast. In the preceding few months, two other actresses voiced the part of Lois Lane. Starting with this story, Jane Alexander took the role — and who would continue in it for a decade.

As a mountainside begins to give way torrential rains, Lois shows that reporters can be compassionate human beings when ordinary folks are in trouble… in this case, as a mountainside slowly collapses, threatening to inundate a village:

Lois: Oh those poor people in the settlement. What will happen to them?

Official: Nothing, if they keep moving…
If they stay where they are, well…

Lois:  Oh, it’s dreadful, Mr. Kent.  Isn’t there anything we can do?

Clark: Well Miss Lane, we are  newspaper people; all we can do is write it up.

Lois: Well I’m going to help them. I don’t care. If you think I’m just going to sit back and write about it, you’re…

She goes off to help people pack and move out of harm’s way, while the script writers put Kent to work in a different way: As Superman, he employs an ethically questionable skill that has tempted some 21st century journalists–a super-hearing ability to eavesdrop on telephone conversations.

Before the end of the six 150-minute episodes, Superman’s greater powers are needed to save the day, literally battling a collapsing mountain. However, he does let slip an admiring comment about his Daily Planet colleague, when she’s not listening. (And in 1940, she probably wouldn’t have taken it as condescending or sexist.)

“Good girl. Plenty of grit.”

Journalistically, however, Kent and Lane head back to Metropolis without their originally assigned story — for reasons explained in the final episode. Dr. Morton decides the world is not ready for the secrets of his weather machine, and his niece and her colleague apparently agree.

Unfortunately, we have no closing scene of their explanation to the editor.

However, one would hope Perry White was satisfied with a few other headlines they brought back — about the foiled bank-robbers and a final banner something like “School Bus Escapes Collapsing Mountain.”

The six episodes are at the Internet Archive’s first page of Superman broadcasts. Here are the remaining five:

This story eventually will be part of JHeroes main Superman page.

Note: Apologies if the first draft of this page had link or layout problems. It was posted from the small screen of a smartphone using Android WordPress and web browser apps.

Additional sources:

Jerry Haendiges log of Superman radio episodes

As noted in the above, there is some uncertainty and inconsistency in the dating and numbering of episodes.

Posted in 1940s, Clark Kent, ethics, Lois Lane, Superman | Leave a comment