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Issue 6

Famous Radio Programs of the 1950s

 

The rise of television during the 1950s signaled the imminent demise of the popular radio show format of the day. As TV ownership became more
available to the average household, many radio dramas were dropped in favor of the increasingly popular music programming. However, radio continued to be popular source of entertainment, and the genre of the radio drama had a loyal following that carried on through into the 1960s.
It was because of this loyal following that many of the hit radio shows that made the transition into a television series often enjoyed the same success as its audio predecessor.


Dragnet (1949 - 1957)

 


"Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."

Dragnet
was the brainchild of producer-actor
Jack Webb, who became famous for his unique, matter-of-fact vocal characterization of Sergeant Joe Friday. An interesting sidenote is that the character Joe Friday became synonymous with
the phrase “Just the facts, ma’am.” when in truth, he never actually uttered those words. The
phrase came from the 1953 parody of the show,
St. George and the Dragonet, by the satirist
Stan Freberg. Prior to Dragnet, Jack Webb starred in other radio crime shows, often portraying various members of law enforcement such as in Jeff Regan, Johnny Modero: Pier 3 and the comedy series,
Pat Novak


Using a semi-documentary style, realism would become the show’s trademark, covering a wide variety of crimes ranging from check fraud, petty theft, murder and drug abuse to topics once considered taboo such as child abduction and sex crimes. In order to gain authenticity for storylines and his character, Webb would often hang out at police headquarters and ride with detective teams on house calls. He also attended classes at the police academy and become fluent in police terminology and technique. His portrayal of the character was so realistic that citizens would ask to see Sergeant Joe Friday at the LAPD police headquarters.

Barton Yarborough co-starred as Sergeant Ben Romero at the beginning of the show’s run.  It became a running joke in many storylines to have his name mispronounced by witnesses while being interviewed. To balance the dry and no-frills Friday, the character Romero was older than Friday and more laidback, serving as a sort of mentor for the detective. Romero was married with children and faced the everyday challenge of balancing work and family life.  As a tribute to Barton Yarborough who died suddenly of a heart attack, the death of the character Ben Romero, by sudden heart attack, was written into the episode “Big Sorrow”. 

Ben Alexander later filled the role as Joe Friday’s partner, Frank Smith. In contrast to the laid back Romero, the Smith character added comic relief to the show by complaining to Joe about his personal life—everything from his wife’s spending to the in-laws staying in town.  Unlike the single and straightforward Joe Friday, Frank Smith humanized policemen with his common “everyday” problems and more personable style of communication. 

Dragnet enjoyed an unprecedented popularity among ordinary citizens and law enforcement personnel alike. The show was lauded for its positive portrayal of police officers, so much so that upon the death of Jack Webb, Sergeant Joe Friday’s badge number 714 was retired.



Minus One (1955-1958)


Countdown for blastoff... X minus five, four, three, two, X minus one... Fire! [Rocket launch SFX] From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space. These are stories of the future; adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds. The National Broadcasting Company in cooperation with Street and Smith, publishers of Astounding Science Fiction presents... X Minus One.

So began each episode of the popular radio sci-fi series X Minus One. Initially a revival of NBC’s short-lived Dimension X (1950-1951), X Minus One is a sci-fi lover’s dream and is ranked among the finest science fiction dramas ever produced for radio.

Directed by Daniel Sutter, and written by George Lefferts and Ernest Kinoy, scripts for the show were radio adaptations of science fiction stories. The show’s first 15 episodes were actually unproduced Dimension X episodes, but the remainder were adaptations of newly published stories by some of the biggest names in 1950s science fiction, including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein, along with a few original scripts. Episodes of the show include adaptations of Robert Sheckley’s “Skulking Permit,” Heinlein’s “Universe” and “The Green Hills of Earth”, Ray Bradbury’s “Mars Heaven,” and Frederik Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World”.

The show had a loyal following until it was cancelled after the 126th broadcast on January 9, 1958. Although, NBC tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the show using original episodes in the 1970s, the entire series is now available for download on the internet.

 



Tales of the Texas Rangers (1950 – 1952)

 
Joel McCrea starring as
Ranger Jayce Pearson
 

Sponsored by Wheaties, Tales of the Texas Rangers aired from July 8, 1950 to September 14, 1952. As were most of the Westerns made in the 1940s and 1950s, Tales of the Texas Rangers was idealistically patriotic, focusing on upholding American laws and values. However, unlike most Westerns of the day, the show had a contemporary setting, and based its realism in the procedures of the modern Texas Rangers. In fact, the show was hailed as a Western version of Dragnet. The use of a contemporary setting also gave Tales of the Texas Rangers another unique vantage in that, although the plot usually incorporated Pearson, the lead character, riding his trusty horse, Charcoal, most of the criminals used automobiles.

Joel McCrea, a Hollywood star, played the lead character, Texas Ranger Jayce Pearson. A talented actor, McCrea lent a special authenticity to the show as he was also a proficient horseman having worked as a ranch hand during his teen years. The character Jayce Pearson was a forerunner to the modern CSI storyline as he used forensic science to solve crimes. 

Stacy Keach, Sr., also a successful actor and writer, created, produced and directed the Tales of the Texas Rangers. To achieve the desired realism, he traveled to Texas and worked with Texas Ranger Captain Manuel “Lone Wolf ” Gonzaullas. Gonzaullas was  soon hired on as the show’s technical advisor. Tales of the Texas Rangers was included in the Smithsonian Archive Presentation of the most famous Radio Detective shows of the 20th Century and still airs on KNX 1070 in Southern California.

 

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