Radio’s Hidden Legacy: How Radio’s Golden Age Influenced the Media Culture

There is a saying that goes: “From tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow.” If radio, in pre-television days, were the acorns, then T.V. might be that mighty oak.
Remember Agnes Moorehead, Endora the meddling mother, from the T.V. sitcom “Bewitched?” What about Gale Gordan as Mr. Mooney, the ill tempered boss, from “The Lucy Show?” How about William Conrad with his sizable belly, tight lip, and rambling baritone voice, when he starred in the T.V. detective shows “Cannon” and “Jake and the Fatman?” Familiar names, but television was only a part of their career histories.
Would you believe that “Endora” once acted with Orson Welles in the radio series, “The Shadow,” playing Lamont Cranston’s beautiful sidekick, Margot Lane? Can you imagine the “Fatman” playing Gunsmoke’s rough, tough Matt Dillon when it aired on the radio?
Anyone familiar with Gordon’s character, Mr. Mooney, wouldn’t be surprised that he played parts in radio sitcoms ranging from the short-tempered bosses in “My Favorite Husband,” and “Our Miss Brooks” to the television stack-blowing boss in “The Lucy Show.”
It would certainly come as no surprise to Jay Hickerson, a contributor to On the Air, The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. According to him “Ninety percent of actors who were on television in the 1950’s got their start on radio.”
For those lucky enough to own one radio, during its golden age before television, must have seemed like a blessing. It brought the world into your home and it did more than just broadcast events that could be read about in the newspaper—it entertained. It attempted every genre: comedy, drama, adventure, musical, Western, and even quiz shows.
Before television, radio had a monopoly on the attention of the American public. As a medium, it had shows ranging from what people considered wonderful to those saturated with junk. Like the television-watching public of today, a radio program could air for years or only a day.
Radio shows came out of one of three national centers: Hollywood, Chicago, or New York. At one of these centers the careers of actors, writers or directors could be made or lost. Whatever the show, two worlds existed side by side: one behind the microphone and one heard through it. Amazing things were accomplished behind a microphone, while. hearing a show, letting it stimulate the listener’s imagination made it charming.
Though that world has faded, radio shows were a national force that shaped the opinions of three generations and would carry these opinions in generations to come. Like the mythical phoenix, which explodes into flames when dying, that world would be reborn when remnants of it would rise from the ashes and leave their mark on television.
How would this mark be made?
One way is that, from radio, the concept of the “spin-off’ first developed. Early examples of this appeared when Harold Peary’s character, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, from “Fibber McGee and Molly” left to do his own show” “The Great Gildersleeve.” Another one is when Phil Harris and Dennis Day of “The Jack Benny Show” would also have shows of their own: “The Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show” and “A Day in the Life of Dennis Day.”
Radio shows such as Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Dragnet would make the transition to television and inspire other family programs (Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons) and police shows (The Untouchables, The FBI) for television.
Another concept is when an event, usually a crime or tragedy, would be inspired from real life and then be told, documentary style, in radio shows such as Suspense or Dragnet. Though used on Dragnet’s television version, this formula has been used on other police shows as “Law & Order.”
Sometimes an idea for a radio show could inspire an idea for a T.V. show. The premise of one short-lived radio sitcom, Granby’s Green Acres, featured an ex-banker who takes his bewildered family to the country to become farmers. Writer Jay Sommers, who developed this show, would eventually team up with writer/producer Paul Henning (The Beverly Hillbillies) and produce another Green Acres hit for television.
For the entertainment-loving public, probably the greatest contribution is when radio actors would provide the star on television shows and even provide the voices to cartoon and movie characters.
The Jack Benny Show was a springboard for several performers on the show. Bea Benadaret who played Gertrude the switchboard operator, and would continue to other numerous radio roles, would play T.V. parts of Pearl Bodine(The Beverly Hillbillies), Kate Bradley(Petticoat Junction) and Betty Rubble (The Flintstones).
Another Benny performer, the “man of a thousand voices,” Mel Blanc, who provided the sound effects for show which included Benny’s antique car, his pet parrot Polly, polar bear Carmichael, and the harried department store clerk at Christmas, would go on to voice Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and other Warner Brothers cartoon characters.
Thurl Ravencroft, best known for voicing “Tony the Tiger” of Kellogs Cornflakes commercials and would sing “Mr. Grinch” on Seuss’s holiday special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” started as the baritone of the Sportman’s Quartet who sang the songs for Benny’s sponsors,
The “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” had it share of radio voice actors, some among them from thrillers. June Foray, who acted in radio shows, such as The Whistler and Lux Mystery Theater, would provide the voices Rocket J. Squirrel, Natasha, and Nell Fenwick. Paul Frees, whose deep voice could be heard on Suspense, could be heard as no-goodnik Boris Badanov.
Hans Conried, who rivaled Gale Gordon as a radio “stack-blower,” would become the voice of Dudley Do-right’s nemesis, Snidely Whiplash. Walter Tetley, who voiced The Great Gildersleeve’s pre-pubescent nephew, Leroy, would also provide the voice of Sherman, the boy partner of the super-intelligent dog, Mr. Peabody(Peabody’s Improbable History).
It should be noted that another popular radio actress, Mercedes McCambridge, whose radio credits included I Love a Mystery and Red Ryder would use her vocal skills to voice the Demon in the 1973 movie, The Exorcist.
Perhaps the foremost example or radio’s legacy can be seen through the career of Sheldon Leonard. Though best remembered onscreen for his role of Nick, the bartender, in It’s A Wonderful Life, it was during his radio career when he was best known for his Damon Runyon-like gangster roles such as Spike McGurk on “Duffy’s Tavern” and as the racing tout on The Jack Benny Show.
Leonard’s career didn’t stop there. Besides acting, he also wrote for radio, and would go on to write, direct, and produce for television. With Danny Thomas, he helped develop shows such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, USMC, and I Spy.
His influence would be seen in the writers he mentored: Danny Arnold (Barney Miller), the team of Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson (The Odd Couple, Happy Days) and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (That Girl, Kate and Allie).
Not bad for a guy who worked in radio.
The tiny acorn of radio may have faded, but the mighty oak if grew into is still appreciated to this day.

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