Radio’s “Big Town” became a DC Comics title in 1951, with Steve Wilson on the cover — and on deadline, with “a killer loose in the City Room.”
By Bob Stepno
“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!” — Edward J. Pawley as “Steve Wilson, fighting managing editor” of the Big Town Illustrated Press
That motto was announced at the start of each Big Town episode for most of the series’ 15-year run. With such a lead-in, it may seem the most outspokenly “pro-journalism” radio drama, although most episodes involved more crime-fighting than news-reporting.
Even a December 1948 episode titled “Deadline at Dawn” that opens with a star reporter being sent to Washington to cover preparations for President Truman’s second inauguration becomes a typical battle against “racket rats.”
By the end of the half-hour, Wilson is holding a gun on one crook and his photographer is apologizing for slugging another with “$280 bucks worth of camera.” “Cheap at twice the price,” the editor replies. (That “Washington assignment” played no part in the story, but explained the actress’s absence for the rest of December. Perhaps listeners thought the “trip” was just a clever way to let one of the stars take a Christmas vacation or fight the flu. After reading an earlier draft of this page, her daughter informed me it was a maternity leave.)
In its later years, the show’s “fighting managing editor” punched bad guys more than anyone punched a typewriter at the Illustrated Press. Editor Steve Wilson also had a habit of calling his star reporter “Lorelei, my lovely” and inviting her to sit on the corner of his desk for a chat, with a “What’s on your mind, beautiful?” (At least he didn’t ask her to sit on his lap, like Walter Burns did with ex-wife Hildy Johnson in “His Girl Friday.”)
Judging by the episodes available for online listening, “Big Town” may have spent less time on reporters doing interviews, shouting across the newsroom, or heading off on assignment than “The Green Hornet” and “The Adventures of Superman.” But “Big Town” was still the best known of radio’s newspaper-focused series for much of its 1937-1952 run, according to On the air: the encyclopedia of old-time radio by John Dunning.
“Writer Jerry McGill had been a newspaperman himself but took great creative license, slipping into high melodrama,” Dunning said. Still, he called McGill’s reporters “diligent sober champions of justice.” (p.89)
Instead of showing Illustrated Press reporters tracking down stories with tips, interviews and shoe-leather in a “newsroom procedural,” McGill told newsworthy stories about rackets, wrong-doing and risks to public safety — all woven into dramatic half-hour episodes. His “Big Town” stories used an economically small cast and were limited to a confining half-hour format, unlike daily serials like “Front Page Farrell,” “Wendy Warren and the News,” “Betty and Bob,” or even “The Adventures of Superman,” which took weeks to tell a story in 15-minute installments. It’s no wonder Steve Wilson came off as more two-fisted detective than pencil-pushing editor.
In the premiere 1937 episodes, Hollywood star Edward G. Robinson created the role of editor Wilson as a reformed tabloid sensationalist trying to clean up his paper and his city. The names are different, but the character picks up where Robinson left off in the 1931 film “Five Star Final.”
In both stories, he played a tabloid editor suffering from guilt over the harm his paper has done. “Five Star Final” ends with editor Randall hurling a telephone through a window as he storms out of the office, quitting his job. In “Big Town,” Wilson doesn’t quit.
Transformed into a social-reformer and racket-buster,Wilson was played by Robinson from falł 1937 until 1942. Edward J. Pawley took over the part from 1943 to 1952; Walter Greaza succeeded him in the show’s final year.
The other leading role, reporter Lorelei Kilbourne, was played by Claire Trevor for the program’s first three years, and later by Ona Munson, who had been a tabloid sob-sister in “Five Star Final.” She was succeeded by Fran Carlon for the Pawley years.
In the opener, Trevor set a sophisticated tone for the character, a high-minded former social worker Wilson had taken on as society editor, “who writes under the name of ‘Lorelei.'” She seems to bring her social-work background to the job, helping reform her scandal-mongering editor.
Only the first two of 1937’s episodes are available online, but they suggest that Wilson’s new outlook was inspired both by Lorelei and by a scandal-victim who tries to kill him. He apparently wrested the sleazy paper from its controlling owner in subsequent episodes, and set out to reform it, himself, and Big Town itself. The script of the first Big Town episode is available at Generic Radio Workshop, and the Old Time Radio Researchers Library hosts an mp3 copy of that program, titled Pittsburgh Lil.
In that episode, Wilson reveals a sensitive soul under his hard-boiled exterior: He turns aside compliments on a college suicide story that boosted circulation. He calls editing the paper “a dirty job” and tells the publisher, “I’m afraid to be idle — my conscience might catch up with me.” He tells Lorelei, “I’m too old to be ashamed and too hungry to be an idealist.”
Later, he plays Beethoven and Grieg on the piano and banters with his Swedish housekeeper, helping her rehearse for an amateur production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” — just before his scandal-victim, a society dame with a hidden past, arrives to shoot him. Only wounded, as the melodramatic episode ends, he dictates the shooting story to Lorelei, keeping Lil’s name out of it — the first glimmer of reform.
In the second episode, “Fire Trap,” Wilson confronts the paper’s publisher, the sanctimonious Stanley Peabody, over a libelous and fake story Peabody had tricked Lorelei into writing. A later episode mentions Peabody as “former” owner.
Fewer than a dozen of Robinson’s almost 200 broadcasts are included in the Internet Archive or Old Time Radio Researchers Group collections, but the available examples show a fully reformed Wilson: He and Lorelei take on big business in the form of the unsafe Big Town Mines; they reform the local reform school; they fight an extortion racket in the poultry business; they crusade for highway safety, and they head for Lisbon and Paris to report on the war in Europe.
(See Big Town program lists at OTR Radio Archives, Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs, and David Goldin’s Radio GoldIndex. Goldin, one of the early collectors of radio transcription disks, mentions that in an interview after one of the 1938 episodes, Trevor revealed that she had been married to the show’s director for six months. As yet, that program hasn’t made it into the episodes “at large” on the Internet.)When Trevor left the series in 1940, Ona Munson took over the part of Lorelei, bridging the Robinson and Pawley years. She was already Robinson’s co-star when the managing editor and his star reporter headed for Europe to report on the anti-Nazi underground, the last widely available Robinson episode, Occupied Paris. (GenericRadio.com has published a transcription of the Occupied Paris episode’s script online.)
Big Town and Five Star Final
As mentioned above, Big Town wasn’t the first trip to the newsroom for Robinson and Munson. They had played an editor and reporter in the film “Five Star Final” in 1931. In fact, the opening episode of “Big Town” echoed the closing scene of “Five Star Final” — with a sensational tabloid editor starting on the road to reform:
- “Five Star Final” ends with a woman threatening the editor with a gun. She’s the daughter in a “sins of the mother visited on the daughter” scandal created by his paper. She is convinced not to shoot, but the experience convinces the editor to quit the tabloid.
- “Big Town” begins with another armed woman threatening Wilson. “Pittsburgh Lil” is the mother in a similar scandal. Unlike her counterpart in “Five Star Final,” she does shoot the editor, having offered him as an epitaph, “Where there’s dirt, there’s Wilson.” But her aim is off and he is only wounded. He decides to protect her identity behind an “unknown assailant” story, his first step toward reform.
In “Five Star Final,” Munson had played a tough, scandal-monger reporter, not the innocent and idealistic reformer Big Town’s Lorelei started out to be. But by the time Munson took over the part, Lorelei had left her social-work approach to the society beat behind and was well on the way to being a more hard-boiled, risk-taking crime reporter in the tradition of the movies’ “Torchy Blane” — who also inspired Superman’s “Lois Lane.”
“Five Star Final” was the film version of a play by the same name, based on a real newspaper, New York’s Evening Graphic. Perhaps not coincidentally, Big Town plots sometimes mention “The Graphic” as the name of its more-sensational local competition.
Few of Robinson’s episodes of Big Town are available, but two from 1940 suggest that the series took a “public service” turn before it shifted its attention to the war, and then to more conventional cops-and-robbers (or editor-and-robbers) crime plots under Robinson’s successor.
The Old Time Radio Researchers Library and Times Past Old Time Radio Archive’s Big Town collection includes the episodes in question — with highway safety as a common theme: March 26, 1940, “Death Rides The Highway” and Dec. 11, 1940, “Every 18 Hours.” (The OTRArchive.blogspot.com Big Town page links to program episodes stored at the Mediafire service, where they can be downloaded, but not streamed from this page.)
The transcription-disc or collectors’ file title for the second episode appears to be incorrect, as “18 hours” doesn’t figure in the story. Perhaps the title was originally “Every Eight Hours” or “Every 16 Minutes.” In the program, after a fatal accident a police captain in the story tells Wilson, “Every eight hours somebody’s life is blotted out by a hit-and-run driver… Every 16 minutes someone dies because of reckless driving.”
Both highway safety episodes also introduce radio itself into this newspaper radio-drama: As part of the plot, newspaper editor Wilson — a bit reluctantly at first — takes to the airwaves with his public service message. In one story, he presents dramatic statistics and anecdotes. In the other, he makes a direct appeal to listeners for clues that might solve a hit-and-run killing. We hear telephone callers talking to the newspaper switchboard saying how much they are behind the radio campaign. Wilson finishes one dramatic appeal with, “You too, Mr. Murderer, listen in!” As a result, one of the men in the car calls the station, insisting that he’s not a murderer. The next night he comes to the studio in person and tells all.
Newspaper journalists are still the stars of the radio drama, but sometimes radio’s increasing role as a news medium makes it into the plot.
According to notes in J.David Goldin’s RadioGoldIndex and DigitalDeli Too’s Big Town newspaper-listing log, co-star Claire Trevor married the show’s producer, Clark Andrews, in 1938, and both left the series in 1939. Ona Munson succeeded Trevor. After she and Robinson left the series in 1942, it changed networks from CBS to NBC, resuming in 1943 with Edward Pawley and Fran Carlon as stars.
While its creator Jerry McGill continued as writer and director, the series appears to have gradually lost production budget. For example, earlier episodes had a narrator to provide scene-setting descriptions and continuity, and programs were accompanied by a full orchestra. By the late 1940s, accompaniment was by a soap-opera style studio organ, and the announcer simply provided transitions to and from commercials. Pawley even delivered Lifebuoy commercials in character as Steve Wilson, along with thanking the network for a new season at the end of the Sept. 14, 1948 episode, “The Blind Justice.”
Listen to Big Town
Audio players on this page use Bert Szoghy’s collection of Big Town files stored at archive.org, including one 1942 Edward G. Robinson episode and others from 1948 and 1949 starring Pawley.
The Times Past Old Time Radio Archives Big Town page has links to a larger collection, about 40 episodes downloadable as one large ZIP archive, and hosted at MediaFire.com for individual downloads. Among them is the first program of the series, when it starred Robinson: Big Town 37-10-19 (001) Pittsburgh Lil (PREMIERE – aka Steve Is Shot)
Archive.org streaming audio players (Click episode name to download MP3 file if your system does not display a player icon):
This page is a work-in-progress and will be expanded with plot summaries and discussions of individual programs.
More Big Town background…
Robert Gibson Corder wrote a biography of the actor who played Steve Wilson the longest, Edward J. Pawley: Broadway’s Elmer Gantry, Radio’s Steve Wilson, and Hollywood’s Perennial Bad Guy (Outskirts Press, 2006). Edward G. Robinson is the subject of several biographies and an autobiography, All My Yesterdays (Hawthorn Books, 1973).
The radio series inspired movies, a TV series and a comic book, all of which have fans on the Web:
- Overview at Wikipedia Big Town page
- Overview at Radio Spirits Big Town page
- Overview at Digital Deli Too
- Big Town 1947 film at IMDB
- Big Town After Dark 1947 film
- I Cover Big Town 1947 film
- Big Town Scandal 1948 film (also Underworld Scandal
- Steve Wilson page at Thrilling Detective website.
- DC Comics Wiki about Big Town
- Mike Grost’s Big Town comic book plot summaries
- Comic covers
Note: This page is still a “draft” subject to updating as I blog about more episodes and consult more sources.