1942 and America is at war. During the course of the year the Japanese invade the Philippines, Malaysia and Burma. FDR signs an order for the internment of Japanese Americans. Gas is rationed and in Chicago the Manhattan Project team produces their first nuclear chain reaction. Pan American Airways schedules the first commercial flight around the world, Joe Louis successfully defends his heavyweight boxing title and the movie Casablanca premiers in New York. At the grocery store, Kellogg’s introduces Raisin Bran for the first time.
Oddly, the cover story in the April 25, 1942 edition of Radio Guide is written by film actress Irene Dunne, who stars in an upcoming movie “Lady in a Jam.” Dunne writes about life in Hollywood. Also, war correspondent Elizabeth Wayne tells her story about what it’s like broadcasting from a war zone. Readers learn that Chinese actors will be used to portray the Japanese in the film “Remember Pearl Harbor,” which was in production at the time. We find out that NBC news reporter Alex Dreier returned from Germany 20 pounds heavier due to a diet of cabbage and potatoes. And as citizens are urged to conserve on energy during the war, the editors of Radio Guide advise to turn the lights off while listening to radio. They suggest the listener “would not only be saving power but would find his radio appreciation increased.” There’s now a half-page ad on the inside cover. Pepsi touts itself as “Hollywood’s best bet for good taste.” And a little further in there’s a curious ad by the Newspaper Institute of America offering a free writing aptitude desk. Presumably the results of that test might qualify you to pay such institute for some further training.
Americans are anxious to hear the news from the war fronts. Many have friends or relatives fighting in Europe or who, like my father, are on ships in the Pacific. The first commercial television broadcasts began in 1941 but TV did not initially catch on and few families owned television sets during the war years. So on the night of Tuesday, April 28, 1942, American families instead turned on their radios. The network programming for the night was not that different from the 30’s. Lots of comedy, variety, drama and music. But there’s one big difference. There’s news on both the networks and the local stations and lots of it.
At 7 p.m. CBS aired its popular radio drama “Are You a Missing Heir?” It dramatized cases of unclaimed inheritances and actually employed detectives to find the missing heirs. They apparently found quite a few of them. One suspects that listeners tuned in for much the same reason that modern-day listeners tune it to lottery drawings. More drama follows in the form of Ned Jordan, Secret Agent. Jordan is an FBI agent and he often is involved in war-themed cases like protecting the U.S. from terrorists.
At 8 p.m. it’s time for a variety show hosted by the popular comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Their guests this evening include the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Senor Lee and Jimmy Cash (not to be confused with Johnny who was only 10 at the time.) The comedy duo of Burns and Allen got their start in vaudeville in the early 20’s. Later they made several motion pictures. Their radio show first hit the airwaves 1936 and continued until 1950. After that they made a successful transition to television. What is perhaps most notable about Burns and Allen’s routines is Gracie’s portrayal as the air-headed wife whose seemingly inane comments end up being far wiser than her more practical husband.
One of radio’s most popular shows, Fibber McGee and Molly, is on at 8:30. This NBC comedy show had an even longer run than Burns and Allen. It was on the radio from 1936 to 1959. Like Burns and Allen these comedians were a married couple, Jim and Marion Jordan. On the show they were a working class couple living in a suburban hamlet called Wishful Vista in a home they won in a raffle. A common plot involved Fibber setting off on unsuccessful schemes to bring in some money. Here’s the episode that was on the air on April 28, 1942.
At 9 p.m. CBS offered Suspense, a radio drama that in 1942 was in its first year. It would prove to be among radio’s most popular dramatic series and continued on the air until 1962. It would win a Peabody Award and be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. But in 1942 it did not yet have a sponsor and was backed by the network itself until a sponsor came on board in 1944. The early shows were introduced by “The Man in Black” who sounds a little like Rod Serling. During its heyday the characters in this drama were often played by prominent films actors and actresses and many of the episodes were penned by well-known mystery writers.
While CBS was offering spine tinglers, NBC stuck to the tried and true comedy variety format. At 9:30 that meant the Red Skelton show. Skelton had followed the familiar path of vaudeville to film to radio to TV. His show went on the air in 1941 under the sponsorship of Raleigh cigarettes. Skelton was known for creating different characters, among the best known is Clem Kadiddlehopper. Some consider Kadiddlehopper a forerunner of the cartoon character Bullwinkle. No comedy program was complete on 1940’s radio without some music and Skelton’s house band was the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra. Nelson later was known for the TV sitcom the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. That show also started on radio. It included Ozzie and Harriet’s son Ricky Nelson who went on to have a successful recording career. As was typical of radio stars of the era, Ozzie and Harriet were really a married couple and Ricky was really their son. As for Skelton, his show was interrupted in 1944 when he was drafted into the army. Assigned to the entertainment corp, he entertained troops in the U.S. and Europe. He resumed his radio career upon his return in 1945.
By 10 p.m. news was the most prevalent program on the radio. Many local stations had their own news programs at 10 or 10:30. The networks had a full newscast at 11. It was during the war that news became a major part of the radio mix. Radio had by now replaced newspapers as the most up to the minute source of breaking news and with the war raging on two fronts, Americans followed developments on their radios.