No, I am not referring to the millions of dollars and pounds that have vanished into thin air during the current stock market upheaval. I am just concerning myself with thin air. You know, the kinds of programs and personalities that kept folks from falling into a great depression of their own in the months following the collapse of the stock market back in 1929. Movies and magazines aside, radio was the chief source of entertainment during those bleak days; yet whereas periodicals are generally well archived and films of the period are receiving attention from scholars and pre-code aficionados alike, few of the shows then on the air can still be appreciated today. As a lover of the old cat’s whiskers, I often resort to rivalling media to get an earful of network radio’s earliest offerings.
In September 1930, Theatre Magazine started to acknowledge radio as a source of dramatic entertainment; in his column “Listening Room Only,” novelist Howard Rockey set out to explore the still new medium in its relation to the stage. According to Rockey’s opening remarks for the October edition, the “début” of “Listening Room Only” had repercussions in the “broadcasting studios. “Apparently,” Rockey remarked, “it has been discovered that at least a percentage of the radio audience is possessed of more than moron intelligence.” Although “radio-drama is still at a low ebb, its accomplishments and its potentialities are claiming the serious attention of those who rule the destinies of the microphone.”
So, what were tuners-in destined to receive back in the fall of 1930? Aside from The Rise of the Goldbergs, few names will sound familiar even to those intimately acquainted with radio dramatics. Producers of radio entertainment still had a lot to learn, particularly since getting shows on the air frequently meant transporting them there from other media. The transfer was often unsuccessful and the results at times unintelligible, as was the case with The Whoops Sisters (pictured above), a comedy sketch “based on a cartoon by Peter Arno—whom Rockey calls the “author of the first radio flop dictated by an audience that could not understand him.”
Rather more successful was Forty Fathom Trawlers. Rockey commends it as
a breathless continuation of sea-tales by James Whipple, a writer commandeered by radio from Hollywood’s script factories. Some of these incidents are original, while others are adaptations of famous nautical stories. Stirring adventures are related about the captain’s table by Brad Sutton, a veteran actor whose stage career goes back to the days when he appeared with Lillian Russell. In the interests of greater realism, one of these instalments was actually broadcast from the cabin of a schooner at sea. The dialogue was sent ashore by short wave, picked up by Columbia and rebroadcast from coast to coast. But so cleverly is the essential background obtained with artificial sound effects that it has been found more effective to play these dramas on a studio stage.
Little remains of Forty-Fathom Trawlers, aside from a couple of scripts (available here) and Whipple’s own comments on the program. Not that any of Whipple’s many other radio efforts ring a bell these days. For NBC, he wrote Dutch Masters Minstrels, The Fortune Teller, The Melodrama Hour, Romance Isle, and Neapolitan Nights; for CBS, he wrote and produced, in addition to Trawlers, series titled Close-ups, Mrs. Murphy’s Boarding House, Around the Samovar, and The La Palina Club Smoker. As news commentator Lowell Thomas remarked in his Foreword to Whipple’s How to Write for Radio (1938), its author wrote and produced “more than two hundred radio programs.”
Forty-Fathom Trawlers must have been an exciting bit of ear-play. While the broadcasting schedules of the networks were awash with such experimental programs, few bothered to preserve them for later generations who find it increasingly difficult to fathom that drama could come flooding into your mind unseen, without having to pass inspection. Ever since television ran the good ship radio aground, those with a passion for the airwaves have had to grab at any bit of flotsam and jetsam coming their way. Reading columns like Rockey’s, I realize that I am barely knee-deep in those waves . . .