Today, my grandmother would have celebrated her 97th birthday. Ninety-seven, the number alone sounds impressive, considering how much has changed since she was born in 1916, it’s nearly impossible to grasp. By today’s standards, people lived in the Middle Ages at the height of WWI. Technology and everyday amenities were still in their infancy, at least in comparison to our technified lives. In the past 97 years, progress has been made on the expense of tradition and time. Depending on your preference, those changes have improved our lives or deteriorated them. No matter how you feel about this development, there’s one thing you may not even have noticed: we as humans have changed, too. And while I still grew up with grandfathers in hats and grandmothers with luscious curls, today’s children rarely get in contact with a generation who still dared to grow old with grace. Personally, I loved having grandparents who had clearly aged. Two people who loved spending their time with me without constantly rushing away. A grandma who cooked, a grandpa who took his afternoon nap in his favorite wingback chair. Two people from a different generation who, from time to time, demanded quietude and patience, but made me laugh like no one else. They taught me things my parents couldn’t, spoiled me without forgetting to remind me of their rules and instilled the desire in me to be a better person. As a child I remember seeing many other sets of grandparents like mine in the streets. Old ladies with handbags full of helpful necessities and grandpas who used their umbrellas as canes until it started to rain. Today, I miss seeing that image: old ladies dressed to a tee, their hair as perfect as their demeanor. I can honestly say, I never heard my grandma using foul language or swearing, no matter how bad a day she may have had. I know that’s an ideal memory but also the childhood I was granted to have. It may be a special bond only grandparents share with their grandchildren, dulcified by the touch of an outgoing generation who grew up in a time so different from the world we are now living in. All those gentlemen and ladies, with their attitude, lessons and style, I love them dearly, the few representatives who are still gracing us with their presence. I really wish we would listen to them more closely and wouldn’t allow their children to take claim to all the positive changes we’ve benefited from in the past decades. So, on my grandma’s birthday, here’s my toast to all my much-admired ladies, those who are still with us and those who live on in my memories. Although today it isn’t always easy to see through, you have taught me so much about being a lady – how to present myself to others and myself, and most importantly, how to be modest in bad times and grateful when the sun is shining again. It’s something I value more deeply the older I get, a lesson I hope to be able to pass on to the next generation with the same kind of love, respect and dedication I was given by my grandma, my all-time favorite lady.
We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.
1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.
2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.
USA 1956-84, 7,420 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS and ABC, black & white and color. Sponsored by Procter & Gamble. Created by Irving Vendig. Announced by Bob Dixon, Herbert Duncan and Harry Kramer Cast: John Larkin, Teal Ames, Ann Flood, Laurence Hugo, Forrest Compton, Lois Kibbee and many others.
Plot summary: In Monticello, life is an endless cycle of personal drama, occasional laughter and crime.
Review: It is the dream of any author to create a character who resonates with a growing audience. As common as this dream may be, it rarely becomes reality. For Erle Stanley Gardner, that dream came true. The character he introduced in 1933 took America by storm: Perry Mason, the attorney who never loses a case. Accompanied by two faithful companions, Della Street and Paul Drake, Gardner’s hero soon tried his cases on paper and screen. First adapted for a movie audience in the 1930s, Perry Mason became truly successful on CBS Radio in 1943. Presented as a daily broadcast, the show was destined to also try its luck on television. Although originally endorsed by Erle Stanley Gardner, the program was ultimately created by Irving Vendig, the mastermind behind Mason’s radio success and renamed The Edge of Night. Following up on twelve years on radio, the television show was presented in daily cliffhanger installments which remained true to their roots of drama and crime. Only loosely based on Gardner’s original concept, The Edge of Night introduced Mike Karr as its central crime-fighting character who was supported by his love interest Sara Lane. Designed as a soap opera, the show was broadcast live on CBS from 1956 until its cancellation in 1975. It was then picked up on ABC for another nine years where it finally ended in 1984 without ever becoming untrue to its open end narrative.
As one of the first two half hour dailies of its genre it may be astonishing to hear that The Edge of Night first drew in a large male audience. At second glance, however, the afternoon time slot as well as the whodunit format are explanation enough. Although first perceived as TV’s daytime Perry Mason, the show soon grew into its own and attracted viewers from all backgrounds and age groups. Set in the fictional town of Monticello, the program did not focus on a single family or institution but rather on the entangled lives of a populace somewhere in the Midwest. John Larkin starred as one of the narrative connectors, an actor then still widely identified as the voice of CBS Radio’s Perry Mason. His Mike Karr was joined by Teal Ames as Sara Lane who met with a tragic and untimely death in 1961. Larkin himself was replaced by Laurence Hugo in 1962 who was then succeeded by Forrest Compton for the remainder of the show’s run. Not uncommon for its genre, The Edge of Night underwent many such character deaths and cast changes in its twenty-eight years on the air, none of which resulted in a fatal decline in ratings. What led to a drop in approval, however, was the unfortunate combination of network policy and Procter & Gambles’ influence on time slot changes.
Today, only a fourth of the original 7,400 episodes are available for syndication. Due to an unfortunate habit of erasing classic recordings, especially the early black and white episodes are a rare treat. For anyone who is familiar with the Perry Mason radio program from the 1940s and 50s, the quality of those few preserved episodes serves as a beautiful continuation of the suspense of once live recorded material. For soap opera fans, the show is also a true classic that deserves to be revisited where possible. Treat yourself to an early episode of The Edge of Night here, Tide commercials, announcer and original score included for the real experience.
Talkie of the Week: Disney Series
USA 1953, 76 minutes, Technicolor, Walt Disney Productions, Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures. Based on Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up by J.M. Barrie. Narrated by Tom Conway, Voice Talents: Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Paul Collins, Tomy Luske, Hans Conried, Heather Angel, Bill Thompson, Corinne Orr, June Forray, Margaret Kerry, Connie Hilton, Karen Kester and Candy Candido.
Plot summary: Who did not dream of him as a child, Peter Pan, the boy from Neverland who wouldn’t grow up?!
Review: I remember it as clearly as if it had happened only yesterday. I lie awake late at night. I cannot sleep and my eyes are fixed on my half-open window. I am waiting for Peter Pan to arrive, but my childhood hero never comes. I am not Wendy. I do not get a chance to catch his shadow and lure him into my life. I do not get to fly away with him into the night. When I was little, stories like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland or A Little Princess were my world. I read them all, saw them on stage and listened to them on the radio. I loved to dive into the world of make-belief, a world so real to me I could taste it like my grandmother’s unequaled cooking. When I first saw Peter Pan on screen, it was love at first sight. I knew that was the kind of hero I had to meet in order to stay who I enjoyed to be: a happy child who was bubbling over with imagination. Quite naturally, I had to grow up and eventually my interest in Neverland began to fade. I am sure clang to it much longer than the average child, but after all, my fascination with the boy who wouldn’t grow up was gone. The allure of an eternal childhood had lost its appeal. After a while, I was excited to grow up like Wendy Darling and I have not missed being a child since. I do remember the excitement though about a fantastic tale like Peter Pan, beautifully adapted by Walt Disney over the course of almost two decades.
Based on J.M. Barrie’s famous play, as well as on his novel Peter and Wendy, the film was set in early 20th century London. The first scene introduces us to the Darlings, an aristocratic family who is blessed with three imaginative children, Wendy, John and Michael. The boys love to act out stories their sister tells them, stories about a far away place called Neverland. Wendy knows her stories are true because she has caught the shadow of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. When he returns to retrieve it, he finally shows himself in person and invites the Darling children to explore his world. Together, they fight Captain Hook, play with the Lost Boys and learn to fly with Tinkerbell’s help. They live a storybook adventure, meet Indians and mermaids, but also learn what it would mean to remain a child forever like Peter Pan.
Although already considered for production in the 1930s, the film did not make it to theaters as one of the studio’s early films but was put on hold for the duration of WWII. After surviving negotiations, draft revisions and Hollywood’s financial drought of the post-war years, Peter Pan finally premiered as Disney’s 14th animated feature on February 5, 1953. The film received mixed reviews but easily turned into a commercial success. Re-released to theaters five times before its premiere on home video in 1990, Peter Pan became a household name across the globe and a character kids still love today. For adults, the film often comes with a taste of nostalgia for the days when they themselves were little. When summer days were endless, friends precious and ice cream wagons played the sweetest melody. For me, Peter Pan will always be the boy I did not get to meet and Wendy the girl who became my heroine. It is that kind of quality Disney’s adaptation still effuses. A true classic for kids from all decades, states and ages.
Watch the trailer here to refresh your memories. The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
TV classics: aka If You had a Million
USA 1955-60, six seasons, 206 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Produced by Don Fedderson, Fred Henry. Cast: Marvin Miller, Paul Frees. Guest stars: Phyllis Avery, Carl Betz, Whitney Blake, Angie Dickinson, Barbara Eden, Beverly Garland, Ray Gordon, Barbara Hale, DeForest Kelly, Del Moore, Mary Tyler Moore, Agnes Moorehead, Maudie Prickett, Gloria Talbott, Robert Vaughn, Betty White, Bill Williams, Dick York and many others.
Plot summary: Millionaires are happy people or are they?
Review: In 1955, anthology programs were as popular on TV as procedurals are today. While most of them featured a different genre on a weekly basis, The Millionaire had a steady concept. John Beresford Tipton, Jr., a man as wealthy as he was generous, made out a check to complete strangers and asked his secretary to deliver them. He gave away one million dollars without any strings attached. Surprised by their sudden fortune, the recipients signed a legal contract to guarantee the anonymity of their unknown sponsor and were then abandoned to their fate. A blessing for some, a curse for others, Tipton’s gift always deeply affected the lives of people who had never dreamed of ever owning so much money.
Popular enough to be parodied on The Jack Benny Program and by Mad Magazine, The Millionaire attracted many guest stars who contributed to the show’s appeal. Although based on a simple idea, the program turned a similar situation into a new story every week and thus kept the original concept interesting for six seasons. Blessed with good scripts and the talents of Marvin Miller as Tipton’s bearer of glad tidings, the show created dramatic, funny and generally entertaining moments with actors such as Dick York, Betty White, Barbara Hale and Bill Williams. Successful for five years on CBS, the show was frequently rerun from 1960 to 1980 and temporarily revived on TV Land in the late 1990s. It is a pity that, today, the program has not yet been made available on DVD. It is a real gem for anyone who loves the Golden Age of television and a cordial invitation to dream of opening the door to Marvin Miller as Michael Anthony.
Talkie of the Week: Disney Series
USA 1941, 64 minutes, Technicolor, Walt Disney Productions, Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures. Based on Dumbo by Helen Aberson.
Plot summary: With his big ears, Dumbo is the laughing stock at the circus – at least until he realizes that his ears actually make him pretty special.
Review: As a kid, I lost a lot of tears over Disney’s classic tales: Bambi, Pinocchio and, most predominantly, Dumbo, the little elephant with ears big enough to fly. I still remember how I choked up when he was ridiculed and teased. I felt for the little fella who was so cute with his over-sized ears and a heart twice as big. I couldn’t understand why he was an outcast, why he was defined by something he had been born with, a feature that made him unique. As an adult, my heart still breaks at the truth behind Dumbo’s painful tale.
In the beginning, Dumbo is an innocent child, a little elephant whose soul gets scarred by depreciative looks and vicious remarks. The only friend he has is a little mouse called Timothy, an animal most of his fellow elephants are scared out of their wits of. His second ally is his elephant mother, a cow who puts the life of her child devotedly above her own. It is that mix of love and pain that rings so true to my heart, a quality many modern tales miss to address in my opinion. Based on Roll-a-Book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, the story does not romanticize the hard lessons Dumbo has to learn in his young life. It rather stresses the tears and hardship of children who do not seem to fit in with the rest of society, of children who look, act or think out of the box.
Although this may sound like a grim tale, deeply depressing and burdensome, Dumbo is the exact opposite of what we have come to accept as realism in entertainment. Disney’s fourth animated feature is warmhearted, moving and full of spirit. It does not bubble wrap indignity or injustice but still rewards us with a happy ending. The film, like many of its peers, walks the fine line of jolly diversion and food for thought. It is an animated classic most of us got introduced to as children and re-evaluated as adults. For me, it is one of Disney’s most haunting tales, a story I love to loathe because it has broken my heart over and over again.
Watch the original trailer here. The film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
As promised, here’s part II of my musical post. On this beautiful, sun-kissed weekend what else matters but some fresh air, a good smoothie and some swell tunes?! So here we go, lean back. This is Radio Talking Classics for you with a selection of classic songs from Hollywood, Broadway and beyond.