Head back to the past with old-time radio

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Head back to the past with old-time radio
A wealth of radio shows from the 1930s through '50s, the golden age of the medium, are available free online. Miguel Porlan/The New York Times.

by Barry Yourgrau

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In the image and video cacophony of our world, there’s an old-fashioned medium that rouses and works with our own powers of imagination, one that suits these cooped-up inner-world days of ours. It’s radio drama, especially from its golden age, in the 1930s through the ’50s, when radio was king of home entertainment. Thanks to the internet, the archival wealth of such shows — constructed from dialogue and sound effects, with a touch of narration and music — is freely available. Here are six to enjoy whenever and wherever, indoors or out.

‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch? Make way for John Gielgud as the most engaging high master of deduction, in episodes that aired on both the BBC and NBC radio networks in 1954 and 1955. Ralph Richardson played Dr. Watson, and Orson Welles turned up briefly as archvillain Professor Moriarty. Gielgud and Richardson brought a charming authentic intimacy to their Baker Street partnership, with Gielgud portraying a Holmes who is formidable but also high-spirited and even playful, and Richardson personifying a good-hearted Watson who is forthright rather than doddering. An atmosphere of schoolboyish adventure and keenness for mysteries dread or humble create a finely articulated delight — all soaked in domestic tobacco smoke, whiskey and sodas and the quavering of a violin. Start with “Dr. Watson Meets Sherlock Holmes,” the fateful encounter of two Victorian gentlemen looking to share rooms. Listen on YouTube.

‘Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar’: This long-running CBS Radio series achieved its heyday in the late 1950s, when Bob Bailey took on the role of “America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator,” Johnny Dollar. Bailey was vocal perfection as a hard-boiled operative with a human side. Though based in Hartford, Connecticut, Dollar’s “transcribed adventures” took him far and wide, including to New Orleans, Nicaragua and Paris. (The show’s supporting cast were aces at accents.) Start listening to this slightly kitschy but addictive series with “The Alvin Summers Matter” episode, in which Johnny tracks a runaway embezzler to a shabby Mexican coastal resort, and tangles with murder and suspicious moonlight kisses. Listen on YouTube.

‘Lux Radio Theater’: This hugely popular series, presented radio renditions of films performed in front of live audiences. From 1936 to 1945, Cecil B. DeMille was the producer and host, while top marquee names often reprised their screen roles. These included Irene Dunne as the shy small-town writer of a scandalous bestseller who turns the tables on the worldly Cary Grant (standing in here for the movie’s Melvyn Douglas) in “Theodora Goes Wild.” In the case of the great screwball newspaper satire “His Girl Friday,” Claudette Colbert took over from the screen version’s Rosalind Russell, as the ace reporter trading zingers with her former boss and ex-husband, played by Fred MacMurray, who replaced Cary Grant. Listen at Old Time Radio Downloads.

‘The House of the Seven Flies’: For more than half a century, the BBC’s “Saturday Night Theater” offered entertaining 90-minute dramas and comedies. In 1961, this adaptation of Victor Canning’s thriller novel by the same name supplied listeners with intricate suspense in spades. An English smuggler with a small boat tries to stay ahead of a sharp-eyed police inspector and a dangerous gang while hunting long-lost diamonds (and finding romance) along the Dutch coast. No big-name actors, but the characters are richly rendered, and the maritime environment is evoked with adroit acoustic touches. Who needs the screen? Listen on YouTube.

‘Theatre Royal’: Thespian grandees anchored this mid-1950s British-made anthology series for NBC Radio, which showcased classic literary works. Laurence Olivier, the first-season host, showed off his range in fine versions of Herman Melville’s existentially comic tale of the scrivener, “Bartleby,” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” But perhaps the highlight is Michael Redgrave in that classic of all Russian stories, Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” He guest starred to play Akaky Akakievich, the pathetic clerk-protagonist, to squeaking perfection. Listen at the Internet Archive.

‘Destination Freedom’: This series of weekly half-hour shows devoted to the Black struggle for democracy in America ran from 1948 to 1950, predating the civil rights movement. Offering an expansive medley of Black historical biographies including those of Harriet Tubman, Satchel Paige and Lena Horne, along with unflinching portrayals of systemic racism, the vivid and revelatory series was conceived and written entirely by Black writer Richard Durham. You might begin with “The Story of 1875,” about Reconstruction’s brutal collapse in Mississippi. Or try the atypical “Segregation Incorporated,” a 1949 portrait of a blatantly segregated major city, Washington, D.C. Listen at Old Time Radio Downloads.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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