I'm sure I've written about radio many times. I could search for relevant posts. But what I'm thinking about today is the category I assigned to Radio. Categories on this blog are there to help you find things. There's a category for Baseball and Bruce Springsteen, for Film and Film Fatales and Geezer Cinema, for Music and Pink and Sleater-Kinney. Recently, I added a category for African-American Directors ... haven't yet turned it into something "official" like my Film Fatales posts, but I tagged a lot of appropriate movies from past entries.
Well, the first time I tagged a post with "Radio" (and thus, the time I invented it as a category for the blog) wasn't as long ago as I might have thought. The post was called "Serial Radio", and it drifted from the Serial podcast to some thoughts about Old Time Radio, with examples. The date was November 13, 2014. Like I say, I know I've talked about radio before, especially FM "Underground" Radio in the 60s. I may have to go back and tag a few posts, make the Radio category relevant. Because after that first post, I wrote one Radio post a year for three years, with the last one being in 2017, when I talked about William Conrad and Gunsmoke.
The other two posts were tied to my life with radio. One came when longtime Bay Area sports announcer Lon Simmons died. Baseball fans develop close, interesting relationships with the people on the radio who describe the action for six months out of the year.
The other Radio post was the most personal of them all: "Al Collins, Grasshopper Pie, and Me". I think it's a good one, so I won't quote it here ... check out the link. Al Collins was a legend, but a good half of that post is about the grasshopper cocktail and grasshopper pies.
What would I write about radio today? The main place I listen to the radio is in the car, and guess what? There's a quarantine, and we never drive anywhere. Spotify playlists are what pass for music radio in 2020, and I will still listen to Giants games when I'm not watching them on TV.
But perhaps what I'm saying is there's a reason why I have so few radio posts. Radio just isn't as important to me any more.
I’ve got no answer for this question. I did a brief search for studies on the subject, but they seemed inconclusive (i.e., they were over my head).
The subject is the expression of emotion via voice, more specifically the expression of a general state of, if not happiness, then at least contentment. It comes to mind when listening to old-time radio dramas. We, the listener, must rely on our imagination to picture what is happening, but that’s a bit simplistic. We’re relying on the music, the dialogue, the sound effects, everything that enters our imagination.
Gunsmoke was arguably the greatest of all radio dramas. Certainly it was the best Western. I’m speaking only of the radio version, because I’m concerned with the use of the voice to suggest emotion, and the television version adds visual information that taints what I’m trying to figure out.
One reason Gunsmoke was a great show was that William Conrad played the lead, Marshal Matt Dillon. I’m tossing out a lot of superlatives, here, but Conrad was one of the greatest of all radio actors. He wasn’t asked to play Dillon on TV ... as became clear when he later starred in shows like Cannon and Jake and the Fatman, Conrad didn’t exactly look like an imposing lawman. (James Arness, 6’7” tall, did look imposing, and he made a fine Marshal.) But as a voice actor, Conrad was at the top of many people’s lists. (He served as the narrator for countless TV series over the years.)
Conrad could sound like a serious badass. When Marshal Dillon got pissed, Conrad’s acting anger grabbed the listener through the radio speaker. He was also excellent at conveying the wary life of a lawman, as he would say at the beginning of each episode, “I'm that man, Matt Dillon, United States Marshal -- the first man they look for and the last they want to meet. It's a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful . . . and a little lonely.”
But even Matt Dillon would occasionally find a brief moment or two to relax, even to enjoy life for a bit. Usually, this came when he greeted Miss Kitty, the “saloon hostess” in Dodge City. Conrad’s voice would convey that happiness.
And that’s my question. How the hell did Conrad do it?
I could ask this about any voice actor, of course. I don’t have any problem understanding the way an actor could convey anger, or fear, or similar emotions. But somehow, when Matt said something as simple as “Hello, Kitty”, you know he’s smiling. And I don’t know how we can tell.
Here’s an episode from 1955. If you just want to hear an example of the above, listen to the first couple of minutes, through the conversation between Matt and Kitty. The way Conrad slides a chuckle into his line reading is easy enough to grasp. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the way he already sounds happy when he says “Hello, Kitty”.
I want to call Al “Jazzbo” Collins a local legend, except “local” is hard to define. His long radio career included extended stays in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and many smaller areas, most in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Besides radio, he was briefly a host for The Tonight Show when they were looking for a new person (they eventually decided on Jack Paar). He had a morning TV show in San Francisco in the early-60s. He even cut a few records, hip fairy tales they were called:
His radio shows, no matter the station, were always broadcast from “The Purple Grotto”, several floors underground. His theme song was “Blues in Hoss Flat” by Count Basie:
Starting in 1959, he was on KSFO in San Francisco. They (and he) played my parents’ kind of music, and hey, I was only six. It wasn’t exactly a “normal” show:
His shtick with the Mexican banditos from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, well, I don’t know how it started. But if you were a guest on his show, you had to get “majuberized”, which meant you had to recite the quote from the movie. (Later in his career, he had a call-in talk show, and people would call solely to get majuberized.)
Then he added that morning TV show, and it was a joy, even for a tyke. Memories are tricky things, but among the stuff he did, I can remember this little toy where you put a coin in it and a little hand came out and grabbed the coin and pulled it inside. Jazzbo loved crepes, and he was always having a chef making crepes on live TV.
Eventually in, I think it was the late-70s, he ended up with a call-in talk show. The channel, KGO, had nothing but talk shows, and reached all along the West Coast at night. Once in awhile, someone would call in berating Jazzbo for not talking about politics, but he would kindly explain that his show was a little different.
It is here where we finally get to the grasshopper pie. As always, Jazzbo loved to talk about his favorite foods, and he frequently spoke of how much he loved grasshopper pie. He’d talk about the recipe ... you started with grasshoppers ... I can’t really remember it very well, and I had never heard of grasshopper pie, but he got my attention as I drove home from the factory after midnight.
Eventually, I figured out that the pie was based on a cocktail my mom used to make called “grasshoppers”. I thought for a long time that grasshoppers were fairly traditional ... I mean, my mom made pitchers at home ... but apparently it’s one of those remnants of post-war American culture, and they went out of fashion. I haven’t had a grasshopper since I was old enough to drink legally (admittedly, I don’t go to bars just looking for the cocktail). But once, 30+ years ago, I was on a jury, and the city paid for our lunch. We went to some fancy restaurant in Oakland, and on the dessert menu was Grasshopper Pie. I had to order it, see what it tasted like, and yum!
Here is a video showing how to make “real” grasshopper pie:
And here’s a bartender making a cocktail:
My mom made hers in a blender.
So now you know my personal history with grasshopper pie. It turns out there’s a restaurant in Oakland that has grasshopper pie on the dessert menu, so my wife and I went there for dinner. The restaurant is called Homeroom, and they pretty much only serve macaroni and cheese. We both got the “classic mac”, and it was delicious (also v.good microwaved the next day ... the servings are huge, you can’t finish one). Then I ordered grasshopper pie for dessert:
It was yummy yummy. It wasn’t “real” grasshopper pie, and I knew in advance ... in place of crème de menthe and crème de cacao, they used chocolate mint ice cream, and apparently, this is standard nowadays. It tasted like a really good Baskin-Robbins cake. The taste was like a real grasshopper if it didn’t have alcohol.
Of course, I had to tell our waitress all of this. I wasn’t surprised she knew nothing of the cocktail, but I admit I felt very old when she said she had never heard of crème de menthe. Even my wife, whose parents didn’t drink like mine, had crème de menthe on the shelf when she was a kid, to pour on ice cream.
Anyway, I’m satisfied now. I hope Jazzbo heard about it in the Purple Grotto.
Every baseball fan understands how Giants and A's fans are feeling today. Because every team has announcers that not only become part of the team, but become our companions over the long six months of a season. 162 games a year, we hear the announcers, and they are as familiar to us as our next-door neighbor ... probably more so. So if you are a baseball fan, you have a special relationship with an announcer or two or three, and if you live long enough, some of those special people will pass away.
Lon Simmons died today at 91. He was a long-time announcer for the Giants ... he was a long-time announcer for the A's. Hell, he was a long-time announcer for the 49ers, and some of his most famous calls came with them, but you don't have the same relationship with football announcers, who are only with us once a week for fewer months than baseball.
Lon didn't just disappear when he retired. He came back and did some games for the Giants in his 80s, and if he wasn't quite as good at following the action, he always had his jokes. The Giants make a big deal of honoring their past, and Lon was always welcome at the park. He won the Hall of Fame's Ford Frick Award for broadcasters, and there is a marker commemorating this at China Basin, alongside ones for Russ Hodges and Jon Miller. Lon looked older as the years progressed, although he never looked as old as he really was. And his mind never quit working, so it was a pleasure when he'd stop into the booth for an inning or two.
The Bay Area has long been blessed with great announcers. Bill King was tops in three different sports. Hank Greenwald was a favorite of Giants' fans. The current baseball announcers are all wonderful, with the unnoticed Ken Korach, and the Giants' well-known team of Kruk and Kuip, along with Jon Miller, possibly the best of his era. Kruk and Kuip are truly loved. Yet I don't think even Bill King's biggest fans would argue with my claim that Lon Simmons was the most-beloved sports announcer in the history of Bay Area sports.
The NPR podcast Serial is getting a lot of attention these days. An offshoot of This American Life, it’s an ongoing reinvestigation of an old murder case by an intrepid reporter, Sarah Koenig. The trick is that Koenig is, to some extent, making it up as she goes. She digs up evidence, she thinks about it, she interviews people, she tells us what tentative conclusions she has, and she moves on. She regularly changes her mind as new evidence comes to her, and it’s interesting to listen as she talks her way through inconsistencies in the story. The result is that, while there are some intriguing characters, including Adnan Syed, who is serving time for the murder, the central character is Sarah Koenig. She is the person we identify with … she is the person doing our work for us, digging through old evidence, interviewing Syed, and rehashing everything in her mind.
Serial is increasingly popular (popular being relative … I’d guess it’s far more popular with NPR listeners than with the general populace, who likely have never heard of it). Reddit hosts discussions, there are parody versions, and critics jabber back and forth about what it all means. From a technical standpoint, it seems to be generally agreed upon that Serial marks an important point in the history of podcasts. Also, Serial invites the same kind of communal attention of many television series today. As far as I know, in that, Serial is unique. We don’t use radio that way any longer.
Well, this being Throwback Thursday, I thought perhaps I’d take this time to confess once again to one of my more obscure pastimes: I listen to Old-Time Radio. I “use” OTR the way we currently use Serial. Obviously, I don’t get together for coffee or tea to hash over the most recent edition of The Adventures of Sam Spade. But the act of listening to the radio as a form of narrative entertainment, which for a couple of decades prior to the growth of television was how most people used radio … well, let’s just say I don’t find it hard to take in the format of Serial.
And so I thought for Throwback Thursday, I’d stick an old radio show on the blog. It’s not easy to make a selection. Gunsmoke was probably the best radio drama, Jack Benny probably had the best radio comedy series, and there are other surprisingly good shows (surprising to us, because of what those shows became). I’m thinking in particular of Dragnet, which in its 60s version was something us hippies and hippie wannabes watched for the laughs it provided. Jack Webb as Joe Friday offered a stone-like image that imprinted itself on our brains, such that when they remade Dragnet as a movie in the 80s, Dan Ackroyd didn’t play Friday as much as he inhabited the ghost of Jack Webb.
But when you listen to a lot of old radio shows, you begin to appreciate Jack Webb. He had a vision for Dragnet, and if it played goofy on TV in the 60s, well, it worked just fine on the radio in the 50s. And it wasn’t a dumb show … on the contrary, Webb placed a vice on Dragnet so that it always did what he wanted. And what he wanted was reality. This was most famously shown (er, heard) when Friday had to make a person-to-person long distance phone call from Los Angeles to a small town in Utah. Webb wanted to be sure he got it right, so they made an actual long-distance call and recorded it for use in the show:
A few years before he made his name with Dragnet, Webb appeared in Pat Novak, for Hire, a private-detective show that is less famous than the ones devoted to characters like Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe. Pat Novak needs to be heard to be believed. It’s not quite a parody on the level of a Naked Gun, which actually makes it more fascinating. Pat Novak, for Hire is the most hard-boiled of hard-boiled series, such that it spills over into comedy. And the dialogue is often so hilarious that you must believe the people behind the show knew what they were doing: making a comedy. It’s unlike the Jack Webb of legend. Here’s an episode, chosen at random (i.e. I found it on YouTube):