Sorting out a stack of CDs of podcasts I downloaded more than a decade ago, I discovered this reporter-centric episode of “Lights Out,” a suspenseful 1940s series.
This copy is playable or downloadable from the Old Time Radio Researchers Group’s OTRRLibrary.org. (It opens with almost a minute of static, disk or tape noise, but gradually becomes listenable.)
The plot: A new London Times reporter is assigned a story on “little-known occupations” and comes upon a railroad tunnel and it’s veteran signal operator.
“This is a world here different from other men’s worlds,” he says. And we’re off. The new reporter asks good questions, and gradually gets some very strange answers
The story “The Signal-Man” is much older than this 1946 broadcast. The author is Charles Dickens, more famous for his novels and his “Christmas Carol” ghost story. Although there is no holiday theme, this one also was first published in a Christmas season magazine, in 1866, in keeping with an even older tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas.
According to Wikipedia, the Dickens story was adapted for broadcast in England, Canada and the U.S.
The American versions were by the Columbia Workshop in 1937, The Weird Circle (“The Thing in the Tunnel,” 1945), this Lights Out production, Hall of Fantasy in 1950, Suspense in 1956, and Beyond Midnight (as “The Signalman”) in 1970.
I’m off to track down recordings of the others, and the original Dickens, to see if the inquiring reporter is the storyteller in all versions, then add it to one of my overview pages.
(Note: this post is partly an experiment in creating a WordPress item from my new cell phone. I will edit it in a day or two.)
This unusual 70-year-old episode of The Green Hornet begins with a heroic (or foolhardy?) journalist defying death threats — but he’s a radio columnist, not one of the series’ usual newspaper reporters. In the 1940s, radio news reports had grown in importance to a nation following developments in World War II, but the broadcast journalist was still not as common a character in radio dramatic series as the newspaper reporter.
The Green Hornet, a costumed-hero adventure series aimed at a teen or young-adult audience, had plenty of journalists. The Hornet was a young newspaper publisher, frustrated by racketeers and corrupt politicians who stayed out of the reach of the law. By pretending to be a masked criminal himself, he could bring them to justice in other ways.
Like Superman’s Daily Planet, the Hornet’s Daily Sentinel was the perfect place to learn about the life of the city. Its reporters, photographers, editors, and the publisher’s secretary, appeared regularly in Hornet stories — for the most part unaware their boss was the man behind the mask and the Hornet’s non-lethal gas gun.
In this episode there are newsroom scenes and some banter between newspaper publisher Britt Reid and reporter Michael Axford, about radio-newspaper competition.
Axford is not the Sentinel’s sharpest reporter; he’s a former cop appointed to his position by Reid’s father, owner of the paper, to double as Reid’s bodyguard. In the Hornet stories he also doubled as comic-relief, a stereotypical ethnic caricature — the “dumb Irish flatfoot” who never figured out the Hornet’s identity.
Of course, Reid ends up going after murderous racketeers as the Green Hornet, with the help of Kato, his valet (and brilliant inventor, and driver), and their super-fast Black Beauty getaway car.
The criminal enterprise in question is a postwar anomaly, a black-market in meat. Was this really an issue in 1946? Or was this script originally developed when wartime rationing and shortages were common? At first I suspected the latter, but a little online research in newspaper archives and history sites shows that meat shortages were, indeed, making headlines in 1946.
Incidentally, the “Man of Many Words” of the episode title is not the radio commentator or anyone on the Sentinel staff, but the racket boss — a corpulent sesquipidelian with echoes of Sydney Greenstreet’s character in the 1941 movie “The Maltese Falcon.” (It may be just a coincidence, but a similarly Greenstreet-like criminal mastermind was featured in the “Adventures of Superman” radio series story “Atom Man in Metropolis” the previous year.)
The Internet Archive provided the MP3 file. Hornet episodes are also available on high-quality CDs from Radio Spirits.
(Technical note: This post was begun with the Chrome browser on an Android phone, then updated with a new version of the WordPress Android app. In addition to getting a new episode onto the site before a classroom discussion next week, I was testing the coding of MP3 streaming and download links, and determining whether repeated edits were saved properly. The App was much more reliable than the phone-browser rendition of the website editor, in both HTML and visual-editing modes.)
The long-running Jewish Theological Seminary radio series “The Eternal Light” usually drew from an older text, but it did feature a crusading newspaper in at least one episode, “The Rabbi with Ink-Stained Hands,” which the inspirational-drama program broadcast more than once.
The 1960 broadcast of “The Rabbi with Ink-stained Hands”:
The broadcast dramatizes the life of Rabbi David Einhorn, an anti-slavery crusader in 1850s Baltimore before being forced to flee to Philadelphia when a mob destroyed his newspaper, Sinai.
The murder of Presbyterian minister and abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy is also mentioned in the story.
The Old-Time Radio Researchers Library has versions of the program from 1956 and 1960. I am browsing the long running series (1944-1962) for other episodes featuring journalists.
So far, I haven’t found references to prominent publishers of Jewish ancestry Adolph Ochs (The New York Times) or Joseph Pulitzer (The New York World), but the program dealt with moral ideals, not just Jewish ancestry. As for newspaper-related episodes, there is one involving the non-Jewish Ben Franklin (played by Ralph Bellamy), waxing nostalgic about his printing appenticeship and first “Silence Dogood” columns. And there’s another ecumenical item about Gandhi, although not focused on his newspapering.
The 1956 broadcast of “The Rabbi with Ink-stained Hands”:
Radio and movie star Frank Lovejoy would have been 104 today. Better known as the leading man reporter on Night Beat, Lovejoy also took a turn as The Blue Beetle, a radio and comic book superhero who appeared to borrow heavily from Superman and The Green Hornet.
Unlike those two, the Beetle’s day job wasn’t at a newspaper. Instead, he was a rookie police patrolman. However, his girlfriend in the comic books was a Lois Lane style reporter, Joan Mason, who even appeared as the title character in some comic stories. And on the radio, he also shared the stage with newspaperman Charlie Stone, “ace reporter of the York City Sun,” friend of police officer Dan Garret (the Blue Beetle) and his partner.
The comic, launched in 1939, evolved into a radio serial in 1940 that ran for less than a year. Frank Lovejoy, the actor who played the Beetle, was to have more success a decade later playing a newspaper columnist in the mystery/drama series “Night Beat.”
Radio episodes of The Blue Beetle are available at archive.org, including Drug Ring (May 15, 1940), which includes reporter Charlie Stone. (Click the episode title to download or stream an MP3 if an audio player icon is not visible.) Not only does the character don his blue chain mail to fight reefer-dealers and opium dens, he begins taking a mysterious drug himself — a secret “vitamin 2X,” which gave him the ability to recover from bullet wounds and increased his strength and speed and mental abilities.
The reporter doesn’t have a big part in the episode, although he is observant enough to get the license number of a gunman’s car. When Garret’s partner sends him to call for an ambulance for the hero, shot down on the street, he mentions that he’ll call his paper at the same time. “Boy, what a story!” he says, on his way to the phone.
Alas, the shows are juvenile, punctuated by organ arpeggios and overwrought dialogue, which may explain why the series had such a short run on radio, although the comic book has had several incarnations under several publishing companies over the years. Here’s an early sample Blue Beetle comic at the Internet Archive, an April 1943 World War II era episode, complete with both Irish and Asian cultural stereotypes.
In 1940, Superman didn’t need a world-threatening super villain or a city-destroying duel with another “hero” to be an entertaining role model. In this early “Adventures of Superman” radio tale, Clark Kent’s reportorial curiosity gets the better of him — so much that he passes up a scheduled boat ride home from a previous adventure in the Caribbean.
“There may be a swell story behind this plea for help. Someone is evidently in trouble!”
His instincts are right — the story eventually involves a mostly deserted island, a castaway, a beautiful woman, a secluded castle with a mysterious dynamo and, of course, a dungeon.
See the JHeroes overview page for the Superman radio show, which began in February, 1940, serializing its stories as 12-minute daily episodes. This particular story ran from Sept. 23 to Oct. 4, shorter than most of the adventures. The six individual episodes are downloadable from the chronological Internet Archive collection of the series, or as a combined 70-minute recording. (Unlike some full-story recordings, this one is before the repetitious Kellogg’s cereal commercials that came with the successful series’ full sponsorship later.)
There are no major explorations of journalism ethics in this juvenile adventure, although Clark does fib to the captain of their homeward-bound vessel to explain why he and Jimmy are staying in the islands, and he does show somewhat questionable judgment including Jimmy in the adventure — but having a companion to talk to makes for much better radio than relying on a narrator to fill in the gaps.
As usual for these early stories, the mystery plot is on a human scale, with Kent’s superhuman powers only coming into play when necessary — often to save Jimmy or Lois Lane (who is absent from this story), while Kent pursues a news story that turns into an adventure. Kent’s being a reporter “frames” the tale more than his being Superman. In the process he shows the usual journalistic skills with nautical charts and small engines, as well as a certain amount of luck, not all of it good.
At the end of this six-parter, there’s no mention of the story Clark plans to file about the adventure. After the mystery is solved (no spoilers here; listen for yourself), Kent and Jimmy don’t even fly home. They head back to Metropolis by boat, where they find a message waiting from Perry White to return home because they are needed for another big story.
It’s the life of a reporter — or so young listeners were taught in 1940.
“Christmas today is very extra-special,” the Man of Steel announced to listeners seventy years ago, at the start of the “Adventures of Superman” episode broadcast on the first Christmas Day after the end of World War II.
With Germany and Japan defeated, the holiday message set the stage for later “Adventures of Superman” public-service messages and storylines encouraging young listeners to view hate and intolerance as their real enemy.
Actor Bud Collyer, whose own identity was a bigger secret than Clark Kent’s, stayed in character to deliver Superman’s “personal message” to listeners, opening the daily program. Superman was speaking, he said, on behalf of the Daily Planet’s Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White: “Once more ‘peace on earth, good will to men’ is more than just a beautiful phrase…” (His speech filled the time slot usually allocated to a promotion for some “mail in your boxtops” Kellogg’s premium.)
“On this Christmas Day, let’s all determine to do everything we can to see that this remains a lasting peace on earth, through the everyday practice of ‘good will to men.’ You see, wars grow out of misunderstanding, hate and intolerance, all things that were preached against by the Prince of Peace, whose nativity we celebrate today. Now, if we try to understand our fellow man, if we avoid hate and banish intolerance, we would do away with the cause for war and this scourge would forever disappear from the earth…”
“Regardless of race, creed or color, we’re all humans, entitled to the same respect and privileges. Here in America, all of us — black and white, Catholic, Protestant and Jew — are all Americans, and we must live together peaceably at home if we are to live at peace with the world.”
Unfortunately — holiday deadline pressure on the radio program’s script writer? — in another part of his speech, the refugee from Krypton managed to attribute the phrase “all men are created equal” to Abraham Lincoln, instead of the Declaration of Independence. I wonder how many young fact-checking fans of the Daily Planet journalists caught the error?
Although reporter Kent conducted a few interviews as part of the plot, there wasn’t much journalism practiced in this episode, day 16 of a 25-episode continuing story, “Searching for Kryptonite,” in which he enlisted the help of his pal Batman to track down stolen chunks of the radioactive element that could kill Superman. In the past few months, Nazis had used kryptonite to create a powerful Atom Man who almost destroyed Superman in story lines that ran from September through November of 1945. Before the tale was over, Superman would face another echo of the war, in the form of an evil Japanese scientist.
But with the real war against Germany and Japan ended, where could radio script writers find forces of evil for Superman to fight? The opening three episodes of “Searching for Kryptonite” hinted at a possible enemy — one that would have fascinated Edward Said, author of the book “Orientalism“: One of the Nazi Atom Man’s associates left behind a coin or seal marked with a star and crescent. After discovering it, Kent and Olsen were attacked by a swarthy, sandal-wearing, knife-wielding assassin who wore the same symbol as a brand on his heel. Kent subdued him without even changing to Superman, but the “Arab” — as Jimmy identified the man to an Irish-accented policeman — killed himself while in police custody.
Did the post-war spirit of brotherhood squelch some writer’s original idea for the villains in this plot? In another episode, the Daily Planet’s expert on symbolism, Harry Goldman, gives Kent and Olsen a lecture on crescent and star symbols, finally assuring them that “there’s nothing distinctly Turkish or Moslem in the combination.” Keeping only a vague xenophobia alive, a “Hindu” boy is identified as part of the gang later, but other members have American or European names like “Sydney,” “Smith,” “Jones” and “Phillips,” although they also have connections with former Nazis and that the Japanese scientist. (The character “Sydney,” killed in an earlier story, was reminiscent of the mysterious world-traveling conspirator played by Sydney Greenstreet in the movie The Maltese Falcon.)
Ultimately, the radio serial dismisses the evil-doers as just “spies and crooks,” the “Crescent and Star mob” and “one of the worst confidence rings in the country,” with no national or religious significance in its membership symbol. And within a few months the “Adventures of Superman” radio series would be fully committed to fighting intolerance, taking on “The Hate Mongers’ Organization” in the spring and, famously, “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” in the summer, and characterizing these domestic villains as echoes of the defeated Nazis for preaching hatred and intolerance.
In the wake of World War II, radio’s fictional journalists were defenders of immigrants and religious and ethnic minorities. A Big Town Christmas episode about a Polish refugee newspaper editor, and Superman and The Daily Planet’s fight against “The Klan of the Fiery Cross” are examples I’ve written about before. Here’s another, with the refugee from planet Krypton taking on “The Hate Monger Organization” in 1946.
It takes a couple of episodes to reveal the evil force at work, starting with arson and an assault on an Irish newsboy, a friend of Jimmy Olsen’s, who witnessed the fire. Superman has support from a Catholic priest, who tells Clark Kent about an interfaith meeting to launch a “Unity House” open to youngsters of all races and backgrounds. The hate campaign seems to be targeting the community brotherhood movement.
“Why, it’s the Nazi method,” Jimmy observes in episode two, after the priest warns him and Kent of a group trying to pit people of different nationalities and religions against one another.
By episode ten, Kent has Jimmy risking his life working undercover — risky journalistic practice — to find the evil mastermind manipulating a youth street gang in its campaign of bigotry and intolerance. Meanwhile, even the opening commercial warned children not to waste any of their breakfast cereal because America needed grain to send to European war refugees.
While the message is one of racial tolerance, today’s listeners may get a chuckle out of an episode ten actor’s stereotypical “Irish cop on the beat” accent, which was also a staple of “The Green Hornet.” You also get to hear an Italian organ-grinder before long, another part of the cavalcade of radio stereotypes.
By episode fifteen, a rabbi has been assaulted, a Methodist minister has been threatened, and Kent has gotten other newspapers to keep quiet until Jimmy gets the goods on the evil mastermind manipulating a gang of pool room street toughs.
As in many of these stories, Clark Kent and his pals at The Daily Planet are the heroes. Superman’s muscle isn’t the right weapon to use against hatred. That’s mostly a job for a mild-mannered reporter or two, who eventually uncover a hate group calling itself “The Guardians of America.”
“I was only trying to protect Americans from foreigners!” the penthouse-dwelling chief hate-monger says when Superman is about to turn him over to the police. It’s a liars excuse, of course, and the evil manipulator’s true identity is revealed in the end. (Hint: That Jimmy Olsen was a pretty sharp kid. See his quote near the top of this article.)
O.K., so Bud Collyer, who played Clark and Superman, does get to drop his voice into Superman’s lower register and take to the air before the end of the story, rescuing Jimmy from what looks like certain death at the hands of “the so-called Guardians of America.” But you have to give the fans what they came for!