Teddy Bear’s Picnic

DEAR READER: With today’s installment, do yourself a favor: Click on each hypertext link as you encounter it, crank up the volume, relax and enjoy. Each item is worth hearing in its own right, and together they form a sort of aural mélange that will make up for any deficiencies in the text.—The Author

Why does my brain swing back so often to my earliest years? Maybe it’s because I’m in my second childhood.

Cream of Wheat box, even older than I am. Public domain.

This morning it was Cream of Wheat. By now, I’ve learned to make it myself, that stuff which my mother used to set before me when I was five or six. This morning my Cream of Wheat steam rose through its surface rubble of berries, and it wafted me back. 

It put me in mind of Big John and Sparky. I barely remember them, but I do remember them.

Out of the Magical Ether

Big John and Sparky? 

“What are you running off at the mouth about now, O New Favorite Writer?” I hear you cry.

Well, to understand, you have to go back to Radio Days.

Every Saturday morning, I came out in my flannel pajamas, clutching my overnight pal, Teddy. I sat down at the kitchen table. Teddy sat beside me.

Mom brought out the steaming porridge and turned on the radio. Big John and Sparky arrived to the tune of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” sung by Ann Stephens. I could relate, because sometimes when I was tired, my own mommy and daddy would take me home to bed, just like the teddy bears in the song. And my best friend was a teddy bear.

Big John and Sparky, pictured in 1957. Public Domain.

Big John was a big man with a big voice, and Sparky was a little elf with a tiny voice—the kind of voice we would later think of as coming from chipmunks, courtesy of “David Seville” (Ross Bagdasarian) and friends Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. But I get ahead of myself. 

Big John and Sparky must have had wonderful adventures together. Now, I only recall their contrasting voices, their theme song—still one of my favorites—and the smell and taste of Cream of Wheat.

“But say, O New Favorite Writer—why did you not watch Big John and Sparky on TV?”

Thanks for your timely interruption, Dear Reader. The answer is, there was no TV. 

But there was no shortage of things to watch on the radio.

The Audio Dimension

After Big John and Sparky, which was only a fifteen-minute program, there came Let’s Pretend, a half-hour show in which multiple actors gave voice to classic tales like Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. However old and hoary these stories might be, they were brand-new and exciting to us children who heard them for the first time on CBS’s Peabody Award-winning program. 

Child actor Arthur Trimble as Buster Brown, with his dog Tige. Public domain.

To make things even more perfect, it was sponsored by Cream of Wheat.

Other programs on Saturday morning included Buster Brown, hosted by “Smilin’ Ed” McConnell, and Space Patrol with Commander-in-Chief Buzz Corry and his young sidekick Cadet Happy. 

Raygun” by Andy Field (Field Office) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The latter show put ray guns and disintegrator blasters into serious competition with cowboy pistols for toy of the year. We, of course, had to imagine what such weapons looked like. But toy designers had good imaginations, too, and soon we could purchase the genuine article at our local five-and-dime. Or we would buy it by sending away a quarter and several cereal boxtops to the sponsor of the program.

It was a great time to be a kid. Soon enough, our butts would be plunked on the living room carpet all Saturday morning as we watched TV. But for a few short years, many of the great things we saw came through our ears, while we munched our Cream of Wheat.

Teddy still remembers it, and so do I.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Radio Days

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

A boy named Izzy Mahler, seven years old, springs out of bed and dashes down the stairs. It is a Saturday morning in October, 1952. 

The Old Philco

Barefoot and pajama’d, Izzy makes straight for the wooden Philco radio, switches it on. Izzy remembers going downtown with Dad to bring home the Philco and its fine supporting table. Ever since—through three apartments, the birth of little Christine, and now the move to this two-story house just across the alley from Grant School—the Philco has been the Mahlers’ proudest possession, and the most useful.

Moving on to the kitchen, Izzy opens the refrigerator, takes out a quart of milk, removes the round cardboard cap from the glass bottle’s neck, and pours himself a glass. Then he sits down at the kitchen table and listens as the radio set in the living room spills forth Let’s Pretend, Buster Brown, and Space Patrol. He sees every detail of each story.

Commander Buzz Corey is just cutting his way into Jelna’s spaceship with an atomic cutting torch when Mom and Dad come out in wrinkled pajamas, rubbing their heads with their knuckles. Izzy wishes he had an atomic cutting torch like Buzz Corey’s, or even just a plain old cosmic ray gun. He would give it to President Eisenhower for copying. That way, should American soldiers run into bug-eyed monsters from Planet Orkulon, they’d be ready.

Christine bangs her tin cup on the wooden tray of her high chair, but Izzy hardly hears. Why can’t you get a ray gun by sending in box-tops? he wonders. A ray gun would take more boxtops, and probably more quarters, than the usual things like the Lone Ranger decoder ring he lost while helping Buster Wiggins plant potatoes—but it would be worth it. He hopes none of the Wigginses will bite into a spud and break a tooth on his decoder ring. 

Now Christine squalls to beat the band, so loud that Izzy can’t hear the radio.

“Harold,” Mom says. Dad stares into space, as usual. Mom plunks down the checkbook with a loud WHACK! Dad sighs and sits down at the kitchen table.

Izzy goes upstairs and gets dressed. When he comes down, Dad frowns over his slide rule, while Mom knits her brows over numbers scrawled on paper with a pencil. 

Izzy opens the back door. Dad looks up. “Where are you going, son?”

“Out to play,” Izzy says.

“Be home for supper,” says Mom.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Out of the Ether

I was born in 1945 into a family that couldn’t, or at least didn’t, afford a television set until 1957, when everybody else had already had a set for two or three years. As a result, I was privileged to be present at the last stand of radio broadcasting as a mass entertainment medium—before TV gobbled up radio’s best shows, and most of its advertising revenue, added a few original programs of its own, and became—well, Television. As we know it.

If you did not experience those “radio days,” let me assure you: radio was great. All the action, all the drama, all the excitement, all the laughs of TV—only you could see it better, because everything played on the full color, panoramic, high-definition screen inside your mind—with all the pans, tilts, and zooms each story required. 

Stan Freberg, the advertising world’s comic genius, produced a radio spot, “Stretching the Imagination,” that perfectly illustrates the vast cinematic potential of the sound-only medium. You can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppZ57EeX6vE.

An Embarrassment of Riches

What kind of shows did radio offer? Besides the Saturday morning fare Izzy consumed in our fictional vignette, there were:

Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. “roy_trigger_new_color72.jpg” by amycgx is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Westerns galore, all of the juvenile variety: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. But most of all, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:30 p.m.: “In the pages of history there is no greater champion of justice than this daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains, who, with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, led the fight for law and order in the early West. . . . Return with us now to those gripping days of yesteryear—the Lone Ranger rides again!

Northerns, starring Royal Canadian Mounted Police like Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with his famous lead dog Yukon King; and mountie Jim West, The Silver Eagle, voiced by radio legend Jim Ameche—one of the Amici boys from Kenosha, Wisconsin—on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Lone Ranger’s 6:30 time slot. 

Game shows like The Quiz Kids and The 64-Dollar Question. That’s not a misprint. Sixty-four dollars was the top prize. That was big money. When television came along, the same show was recycled, “isolation booths” added for showmanship, and three zeroes tacked on to the prizes—so it became The $64,000 Question.

Audience-participation shows like Art Linkletter’s People Are Funny or Ralph Edwards’ Truth or Consequences, in which typical Americans made fools of themselves, on the screen in your mind, for fame, glory, and small sums of money. They may have been forerunners of what is today called “reality TV.” 

Comedies, glorious comedies of all descriptions. There was the pompous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd; you could not even see his lips move—at least, on the radio. There were situation comedies of small-town life, like Fibber McGee and Molly and The Great Gildersleeve. Others relied on ethnic identities: The Goldbergs (not to be confused with the 2013 TV series of that name), Life with Luigi (in which Irish-American actor J. Carrol Naish played the title Italian character), and Amos ’n’ Andy (a show whose African American title characters were created and portrayed by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll). There were comedies about teenagers—Henry Aldrich, Corliss Archer, My Little Margie, and the high school denizens taught by Our Miss Brooks. And there were wholesome family shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. (Leave It to Beaver, the classic exemplar of this kind of show, never appeared on radio; it was a creature of television only.) 

And then there was The Jack Benny Show, in some ways the forerunner of modern shows like Seinfeld. To say the Benny show was comedy is true enough; but it hardly does justice to the subject. Jack Benny was an institution. Perhaps a good subject for a later blog post.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)