Not being a television fan, on free evenings I tune in to some classical music on National Public Radio. The music serves as background for reading. Early in the morning, I turn on the radio again for the news in Spanish as part of my efforts to learn that language.
As a child, however, listening to the radio filled up almost the same amount of time that youngsters now spend watching television. Before reading for its own sake became important, I listened to several story-type programs. They are long gone, but their memory remainsmystery programs like Inner Sanctum, The Shadow, The Adventures of Mr. and Mrs. North and more general ones like Grand Central Stationthe giant New York City train station, the announcer informed us weekly, that is the crossroads of a million private lives.
Because they depended not only on their story lines to hold the listener’s interest, but also on sound effects, programs of this kind served a purpose in developing the listener’s ability to mentally imagine a scene. Today’s televised stories cannot do that. I remember listening late one afternoon to Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy (definitely not me). The main character was walking in the snow at a winter resort where some misdeed had occurred, and the sound effect that simulated the crunching of footsteps on hard-packed snow summoned up an entire picture before my eyes. Equally graven into my memory is the creaking door sound that introduced episodes of Inner Sanctum.
America House is close to the Museum of Television and Radio on West 52nd Street, and I paid a visit there to revive some of these memories from the 1940’s. A helpful employee assisted me in looking up a few of my once-favorite programs, and with reference slip in hand, I moved to the console room. There I was guided to a semi-enclosed niche and handed a set of earphones. Presently, the familiar sound of Inner Sanctum’s creaking door came through, and the host, Raymond, introduced the episode with his dark, trademark laugh. He had an innocent foil named Mary, whose role was to show sympathy with characters in the story while also promoting the sponsor’s product, Lipton tea.
The story I heardan original spine-tingler called Dead to Rightsconcerned a greedy married couple, Lou and Dotty, who lived in a Manhattan rooming house. Having learned that an elderly tenant upstairs had $20,000 hidden in his pillow, they plot to do away with him and steal the money. The husband ingratiates himself into the elderly tenant’s room as he is falling asleep, and turns on the gaswhich we hear hissing loudlyand then closes the window, which we also hear as it is slammed shut.
Many other sounds helped to visualize what was happening as the story unfoldedthe distant sound of foghorns in the East River, footsteps on the stairs, the throb of organ music at crucial turning points, the swoosh of closing subway doors as the guilty pair tries to escape with the money, the sound of a coin falling into place in a pay phone, an elevator gliding upward. The sound effects did indeed bring those scenes to life. In my mind’s eye I could picture the dingy rooming house and all the other locations. Though the story itself had a predictable justice-prevails message, it held me, because in my mind’s eye I could see it happening. Nor was the message itself a bad one for a child.
When my listening time was over, I glanced around in the semi-darkness of the console room and realized that most of the other people at their own niches were looking into small television screens watching old TV shows. They too had earphones, but I seemed to be the only radio listener. For those few hours with earphones clamped to my head, a part of my childhood returnedone which left me grateful that my family had no television set in our house until I was 16 years old.