by Bob Stepno
This is a work in progress; this note will be removed when updates are complete
For eight years on radio and nine on television, “The Big Story” series dramatized hundreds of “how I got the story” tales, primarily murder cases and other major crimes. The tobacco company sponsor presented each real-life reporter with a $500 “Pall Mall Award for The Big Story.” Stories often credited the journalist with uncovering a clue to a crime or going undercover to get the story, but they also emphasized police-press cooperation.
For example, in the seventh episode, Detroit Times reporter Ruth Montgomery is asked by the police to pass herself off as the member of a secret society to investigate “The Black Legion Murder.” While the names were changed in the radio dramas, the actual 1936-1937 criminal cases were well known — and had already inspired a feature film with Humphrey Bogart before Montgomery’s 1947 Big Story episode.
Thanks to the national tobacco lawsuit settlement, archived copies of the program’s scripts are more readily available than her original newspaper stories. Her Detroit Evening Times disappeared in a 1960 merger.
Accounts of the murder Montgomery covered are among hundreds of Black Legion stories available in The New York Times, The Detroit News, and in wire service accounts, such as those preserved in Google’s news archive of scanned papers from as far afield as Nashua, N.H., Spartansburg, S.C., the Milwaukee, Hopkinsville, Ky. and Bend, Ore.
According to “The Black Legion Murder” script, not only was the killer found guilty after Montgomery’s original story, but 22 leaders of the secret group were indicted for subversive activities. The implication is that Montgomery’s clues to the identity of the murdered man contributed to the convictions, although it’s unclear what value her undercover work added. (See episode 7 in the “Big Story program archive 001-013” PDF file at TobaccoDocuments.org.)
An audio recording of the broadcasting is not available, but the script is colorful and dramatic, and does parallel the facts of the murder case: Black Legion members were convicted of shooting a W.P.A. worker, claiming that the man was being punished for abusing his wife — an accusation both he and she denied. (Ruth Montgomery’s Detroit Times is gone, but another paper, The Detroit News, has a history page on the Black Legion cases, with photos of members with black robes, hoods, pirate-looking hats, whips and other weapons.)
The script begins with an announcer describing Ruth’s arrival at a city morgue with a list of missing persons, facing the usual “They shouldn’t send a girl on a man’s job” banter with a police lieutenant…
Lieutenant: “Mike — roll the tarp away from his face — what’s left of it. (Pause.) Okay, Ruth. Had enough?”
Ruth: (She certainly has.) Uh-huh. I — that’s enough…”
Announcer: That riddled, grotesque corpse is the beginning of tonight’s Big Story, presented by Pall Mall famous cigarettes…
You are Ruth Montgomery, just rounding out your first six months on your first big city paper — The Detroit Times. The City editor’s had you take a gander at an unknown corpse found in a Dearborn gully — with five bullet holes in it. You’ve had your look — and two cups of black coffee — and now, armed with a list of missing persons, plus some dope the cops gave you at the scene, you’re following an interne down the corridor of a ward in Kiefer Hospital… — Episode #7 script, May 14, 1947
(The story wasn’t Montgomery’s last contact with the dead. After 40 years in journalism, including becoming the first woman in the New York Daily News Washington bureau and writing a nationally syndicated column, she became a “new age” psychic, writing books about spiritualism, past lives and more.)
From its start in April 1947, The Big Story called itself “a thrilling new series of exciting and authentic accounts of newspaper reporters working on real life-and-death stories.” The first Pall Mall Award went, the script said, “to Joseph Garretson of the Cincinnati Enquirer, for his heroism, daring, and intelligence in helping solve the thrilling case of ‘The Kid and the Box.'” (The “as broadcast” script has the words “helping solve” written over the word “solving.”)
All names were changed except those of the reporters, and liberties are taken with the adaptations — including dialogue between murderers and their victims — in the interest of radio drama. If the series is to believed, it was a simpler time for police reporters, who were given priority access to crime scenes, joined in on raids, beat the police to clues, and were even asked for help getting a confession out a particularly hard nut to crack.
That’s the role Dorothy Kilgallen plays in “The Bobby Sox Kid from Bayonne,” although the grilling takes a feminine touch — and the loan of a powder puff — to get the teenage killer to tell all.
In the episode, “Murder and a Frustrated Father,” when United Press reporter Sam Melnick and a police officer approach a murder suspect, the policeman asks Melnick if he is carrying a gun, hands him a flashlight instead, and later credits Melnick with saving his life by flashing the light in the gunman’s eyes. Melnick’s comment at the end indicates that the man already had shot himself, which is not part of the dramatization.
Nolan Bullock of the Tulsa Tribune is introduced in the 1949 episode “Three Coins Spell Death” as working as “an undercover agent for the state crime bureau,” negotiating for shipment of bootleg liquor, when the murder case pops up. He’s also described as “a reporter with a flattened nose, and you got it by sticking it consistently into other people’s business.” The dead man and the bootleggers, of course, wind up being the same story.
Sometimes the reporter’s tricks of the trade are part of the focus — such as the Denver Post‘s Bernard Beckwith holding a small-town telephone line occupied so that it would be available when he had the lead for his story.
Each night’s featured reporter accepted a cash prize from the program’s tobacco sponsors, Pall Mall or Lucky Strike, usually making an acceptance statement by telegram at the end of the show, complete with “telegraphese” lack of superfluous words like “the” and “an,” recounting later developments in the case.
Because of the program’s American Tobacco Company affiliation and the federal settlement of tobacco lawsuits, the University of California at San Francisco tobacco advertising archives and sites like TobaccoDocuments.org include full program scripts, usually edited with full information about cast and crew. The Old Time Radio Researchers have archived copies of the Big Story scripts at their website.
Few of the reporters are well-known today, with possible exceptions like Dorothy Kilgallen — although her “Big Story” was a hatchet-murder jailhouse interview from her early days as a New York Evening Journal reporter, not something related to her later national column, radio or television work.
Far from “breaking news,” these anthology dramas sometimes dipped deep into the pasts of the reporters in question, and just how far back is not mentioned in the presentation. One 1950s televised episode about tabloid publisher Emile Gauvreau of the New York Evening Graphic reached back to his first newspaper job in New Haven, Conn., about 30 years earlier.
John Dunning’s book Tune in Yesterday or The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (p.88) says producer Bernard J. Prockter was inspired by a Newsweek article about reporters whose story pardoned a man who had been convicted of murder 14 years earlier — which sounds like the plot of “Call Northside 777.” The series was popular enough to challenge popular singer Bing Crosby’s variety show.
“Many reporters who won the Big Story award looked back at the show with a mixture of affection and amusement,” Dunning wrote. “Their stories were highly dramatized, often to the extent that the subjects had trouble recognizing themselves on the air.”
The folks at DigitalDeliFTP have done their usual excellent job checking newspaper listings, Billboard Magazine and more to create “The Definitive The Big Story Radio Log” webpage identifying cast members, announcers, directors and plot points for 381 episodes.
Radio collector J. David Goldin’s archive describes 24 episodes in his The Big Story collection, including casts, production information, and listening notes.
The Old Time Radio Researchers Group’s OTRRpedia page on The Big Story in summer 2012 listed 37 episodes as being generally available, while its Old Time Radio Researchers Group log listed 383 episodes as having been broadcast between 1947 and 1955.
The source of the Internet Archive’s The Big Story MP3 files is listed as the Times Past Old Time Radio blog. Some include podcast-style introductions, along with the typographical errors to be expected with collectors traded tapes with hand-written labels. (For example, Sam Melnick of United Press is identified as “Sam Metnick.”)
Some, such as the Melnick episode, are recordings of rebroadcasts by Armed Forces Radio, minus the tobacco advertising.
The James Fusco episode, broadcast June 4, 1947, includes a spoken introduction by the reporter himself, apparently added while he tape recorded the broadcast over the air from a Cleveland station. He identifies the 1929 “Snook-Hicks” murder case that the story was based on. How his tape recording made its way into the archives of old-time-radio collectors is not mentioned.
The Internet Archive hosts a collection of 22 MP3 recordings of episodes of The Big Story which, at this writing (August 2012), can be difficult to find because the series title is concatenated as “BigStoryThe,” hiding it from search engines. I’ve added newspaper names to the list and will add biographical and historical information as I track down details. The MP3 players link to the Internet Archive collection (the “MB” numbers are the original MP3 file sizes). I’ve added episode numbers after cross-checking the file names with the OTRRPedia list.
- 10 The Thirteenth Key (James Fusco, Columbus Citizen) 5.7 MB
- 27 The Case of the Counterfeit Coins (Jack Adams, Los Angeles Examiner) 6.6 MB
- 29 The Bobby-Sox Kid from Bayonne (Dorothy Kilgallen, New York Journal) 6.7 MB
- 35 The Case of the Unfinished Love Song (Howard Beaufait, Cleveland News) 6.6 MB
- 37 The Case of the Final Curtain (Aubrey Maddock, The Hartford Courant) 13.2 MB
- 38 The Case of the Ambitious Hobo (Russell Wilson, DesMoines Tribune) 15.0 MB
- 41 Manhunt in Manhattan (Ted Prager, New York Daily News) 6.0 MB
- 58 Pillars of Society (William Miller, Cleveland Press) 13.3 MB
- 60 The Deadline Murder (Rolf K Mills, Minneapolis Morning Tribune) 13.2 MB
- 69 The Lottery Racket (Keeler McCartney, Atlanta Constitution) 13.5 MB
- 93 Murderous Kid (Al Aaronson, Louisville Courier Journal) 6.7 MB; after hearing the testimony of a dying victim, the reporter leads police to a cold-blooded killer who shipped himself to Knoxville in a packing crate to escape.
- 96 Jig Saw (Joseph Wirges, Little Rock Gazette) 6.4 MB
- 102 Respected Chemist Dead (Ike McAnally, Cleveland News) 13.9 MB
- 115 The Bitterest Man On the Earth (Julian C Houseman, Richmond News Leader) 6.7 MB
- 142 Three Coins Spell Death (Nolan Bullock, Tulsa Tribune) 11.5 MB
- 145 Murder and a Frustrated Father (Sam Melnick, United Press, Kansas City) 11.6 MB
- 146 Gambling, Divorce and Murder (Frank McCulloch, Reno Gazette) 5.6 MB
- 172 Hunch That Paid Off (Bill Griffith, Youngstown Vindicator) 6.6 MB
- 192 Triple Murder (T R Johnson, Salt Lake Tribune) 5.2 MB
- 193 Paul Gray’s Missing Wife (Bernard Beckwith, Denver Post) 12.2 MB
- 260 To Avenge a Murder (Alan Cowperthwaite, Helena, Mont., Independent Record) 6.6 MB
- 337 Too Terrible To Be Believed (Arthur Mielke, Washington Times Herald) 6.1 MB
Episode discussions (previously posted as blog entries):
The real-life reporter is Dorothy Kilgallen, then of the New York Evening Journal, later of Hearst’s Journal-American and national syndication as a Broadway gossip columnist. In this early incarnation as a crime reporter — probably a decade before the 1947 broadcast, she is interviewing a teenager suspected of taking an axe to her mother. Kilgallen is played by actress Janet Fox.
This portrayal of a woman reporter at work may be true, but certainly fits the stereotypes of the day — sending another woman to get a 17-year-old female suspect to talk by loaning her a compact to powder her nose.
“I just might come up with something, you know, ‘just between us girls,'” she tells the police.
As a “procedural,” the reporter’s manipulative interview with the teenager might be worth discussing in a “reporting techniques” or ethics class, but a lot of the dialogue is hard to take with a straight face — even before the line, “I’m just wacky about mayonnaise!” (Or the revelation that “Temptation” is her favorite song.)
In the 1930s Kilgallen had repeated Nellie Bly’s round-the-world stunt and wrote a book about it, but “The Big Story” was more interested in crime reports. By the time of this broadcast, Kilgallen had gone on to be a famous columnist and co-host of the married-couple-chat radio show, “Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick” with her husband, actor and producer Richard Kollmar. In the ’50s she would add TV panel-show celebrity to her credentials.
Ironically, while she was once known as “America’s most famous crime reporter,” Kilgallen’s own death resulted in articles, books and — for a time — an ongoing “Kilgallen Files” blog — after her stories on the death of President Kennedy and related conspiracy theories.