Old-time Radio Primer: H Stands for Hiatus

Well, how are you feeling today? According to one British study, 23 June is the happiest day of the year. Montague and I were perfectly content, playing and dozing in the garden and going for walks along the lane. Perhaps, the folks down in the nearby town of Aberystwyth were even happier last Tuesday, when they had several thousand pounds thrown at them on the street by a stranger who just wanted to “spread a little sunshine.” Apparently, this local story had already travelled around the world (both my sister and my best friend in Germany had heard of it) before it came to my ears, which, no doubt, were too busy picking up the sounds of .

As grateful as I am for ready access and instant replay, recording technology can render our present-day listening quite unlike the experience of tuning in back then. It is difficult to get a sense of a weekly broadcasting schedule, of certain parts of the day being associated with particular programs, of the anticipation of their airing and the space such periodically scheduled events occupied in the minds of the audience in the interim.

To be sure, the middle of June would have been meant a rather prolonged wait for the next tune-in opportunity. It was during this month (rather than May, as on US television nowadays) that most of the crowd-pleasing drama series and comedy-variety shows went on their summer hiatus. Hiatus, from the Latin hiare, meaning “to yawn.”

As I suggested a while ago, the off-season in radio had initially been a response to technical difficulties of broadcasting during the long, bright days of the year. Now, a hiatus can be a precarious wait, which is why I’d never attempt one for broadcastellan. The question is: will the audience greet the news of your return with excitement, or a resounding yawn? That is, will your show go on even in its absence, circulating in the minds of the multitude? Not, perhaps, if your season finale is as disastrous as the second one of Desperate Housewives.

To be sure, broadcasters did not shut down the microphones and close the studios for the duration. Before resorting to reruns, which became customary in the 1950s, they scheduled replacement programs, some of which, like the Forecast series, were designed to test the potential of untried fare. It wasn’t all filler during those summer months. The Mercury Theater, for instance, was first heard in July 1938. Besides, a prestigious timeslot, one occupied by the Lux Radio Theatre demanded high-profile or at least adequate replacements. One of the most highly regarded programs to have its premiere during the summer was the thriller anthology Escape.

On this day, 23 June, in 1950, Escape offered the western melodrama “Sundown,” the “story of a boy who never owned anything . . . but a gun.” The cast was headed by Barton Yarborough, best remembered today for his portrayal of Texan daredevil Doc Long in Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery serial. Doc and his pals did not break for the summer; they kept audiences suspended, from one cliffhanger to the next. On the very day Yarborough was heard in “Sundown,” another Doc Long (played by Jim Boles) set out for a new adventure in “The Snake with the Diamond Eyes.”

There was time as well for summer schooling. On this day in 1957, Edward R. Murrow introduced the listeners of the CBS Radio Workshop to a word far more ominous than “hiatus,” precisely because it denotes a lingering presence:

A new word has been added to our ever increasing vocabulary. It’s a small word, dressed in fear. To pronounce, not very difficult. To envision, staggering. This scientific word may well become the most important in all languages and to all peoples. It is pronounced “fallout.” “Fallout.” Rather a simple word to describe so much. ‘Fallout.’ Radiation withheld by quantities of atmosphere that may eventually descend to pillage, burn, kill not only you and me, but the scores of generations unborn. Quite a word, “fallout.”

Countering the politics of terror, Murrow suggested that this lexical novelty could also denote the harvest of knowledge, as “words, thoughts, ideas,” withheld in an “atmosphere of ignorance,” eventually descend on future generations. Perhaps, this intellectual fallout is rather too gradual and the radiation too slight. With atomic energy once again on the political agenda in Britain, and threats of nuclear warfare not quite a thing of the past, little seems to have been learned from past horrors.

I wish political leaders could be forced to go on hiatus to make room for summer replacements—especially since some of them seem as perverse as that ill-treated teenager in Escape, seeking retribution beyond reason in an atmosphere of fear and its inevitable fallout. To the restless mind, “hiatus” can mean “pause for thought.”

5 Replies to “Old-time Radio Primer: H Stands for Hiatus”

  1. I suppose you\’re right about Barton Yarborough being best remembered for playing Doc Long on \”I Love A Mystery\” but he has an interesting other part of his history. Yarborough played Jack Webb\’s original partner on \”Dragnet\” Ben Romero. Yarborough was supposed to make the transition to television with web in the same role and in fact he filmed two episodes of the show. Yarborough died three days after the pilot episode of \”Dragnet\” aired on TV.

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  2. Thank you for the footnote. No doubt, had Yarborough been able to continue in Dragnet on television, Romero would now be considered his defining role. Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, however, millions of Americans would have thought of Yarborough first and foremost as yet another character: Clifford in One Man\’s Family, Morse\’s most popular serial. After all, Yarborough played that part from 1932 until his death in 1951. Living up to his name, Doc Long outlasted both of them.

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  3. In my case, the blast has been minuscule, to be sure; but I appreciate the ripples. I’ll try to update the podcastellan podcast before you cancel that subscription. Thanks for stopping by, Doug.

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  4. I never knew all that about the summer pauses – thanks for sharing it with us.I do have a few programs during the summer pauses, the summer replacements, and from these I\’d concluded that they tried to introduce new talent in that time. E.g. Stoppnagle and Bud (who apparently hasn\’t been mentioned at Broadcastellan yet!) filled in one summer for Fred Allen (Town Hall Tonight 36-09-30 is available) and Jack Paar (filled in for Jack Benny, summer of 1947).

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