Radio Waves in my Head

When I was six years old and in the First Grade at St. Anthony of Padua school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I got exposed to Daytime Radio and, in bits and pieces, it’s been in my head ever since. I’d come home for lunch and my grandmother would feed me soup and a sandwich and milk at the kitchen table and we would listen to her programs. (It wasn’t until Sixth Grade that I would be given money to buy a Hero and a soda at Bruno’s Grocery Store, to be eaten by us boys on the stoops of the houses along Leonard Street, the school block.)

Nan and I listened to: “And now, Our Gal Sunday, the story of an orphan girl named Sunday from the little mining town of Silver Creek, Colorado, who in young womanhood married England’s richest, most handsome lord, Lord Henry Brinthrope—the story that asks the question, can this girl from a mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?” All of this I remember, and the name Black Swan Hall where Sunday and Lord Henry were beset by ex-lovers, fortune-hunters, shady lords and ladies, even kidnappers, for fifteen minutes every weekday at 12:15 p.m.

Then, the Romance of Helen Trent. I recall, almost word for word, the signature opening: “Time now for the Romance of Helen Trent…the real-life drama of Helen Trent, who—when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair—fights back bravely, successfully, to prove what so many women long to prove in their own lives…that because a woman is 35, and more, romance in life need not be over…” I checked my recollections against “On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio”, by mystery author John Dunning (Oxford University Press, 1998). Independently, I remembered the name Gil Whitney, Helen’s perennial suitor. That she was a sought-after dress designer in Hollywood, changed her men like a whore changes her panties, yet was a straight-shooter and didn’t smoke—this I didn’t know at age 7. Helen Trent was also 15-minutes-long and as the music faded, I was out the door and covering the four blocks back to school before the bell rang summoning us to line up in the street to march back in by class.

After school, I ran home to do my homework before hitting the street—“go out and play” were the magic words, accompanied by “Don’t go off the block and be home for supper. (In Fall and Winter, that meant darkness, about 5 p.m.; in Spring as it stayed light longer, you’d push it.) We played in the streets in that time: stickball, punchball, kick-the-can, ringolevio; my block, Oakland Street was a narrow, cobble-stoned City street, lightly traveled by cars. When it got dark, my Aunt, leaning out the window of our fourth-floor tenement, would shout “Bobby”—loudly enough for me to hear her over the street din, in that summonsing voice that set me in instant motion.

After dinner, The Fat Man awaited. Each Monday night at 8:30, I’d be sitting cross-legged in front of our big RCA console in the parlor when a harp starts playing and a woman intones: “There he goes into that drugstore…he’s stepping on the scale.” (We hear a penny tumbling into the scale) “Weight?...237 pounds.” (A clicking sound of the fortune popping out of the scale), then: “Fortune?---Danger! Who is it?” she asks. “The Fat Mannnnnnn!” PI Brad Runyan answers. I don’t remember a single adventure of the Fat Man although I sat with him for 30 minutes on countless Mondays from 1946 to 1951.

My keenest memories, though, are of Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons (Thursdays at 8). Mike Clancy, his operative, eventually says in a vaudevillian turn: “Saints preserve us, Mr. Keen, do ya mean…?” “Yes, Mike,” Keen replies, explaining how he solved the crime. A charming, old stuffed shirt, Mr. Keen was Philo Vance for the lower classes. And Boston Blackie (Friday nights at 10), “enemy to those who make him an enemy, friend to those who have no friend.” Those lines are forever inscribed in my brain. Although I listened loyally to Bulldog Drummond, the Green Hornet, Johnny Dollar, I Was a Communist for the FBI, Mr. District Attorney, Renfrew of the Royal Mounted, I remember the names only, with a touch of nostalgia. “Hi Yo, Silver, Away!” … “Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”…Spooky organ music, the unholy laugh, then: “Who knows…what evil…lllllurks…in the hearts of men?...The Shadow knows!” Goes without saying, they will always be with me.

From ages six to ten, I was captive to the Magic Box. Then a spinster lady, Josie, who lived with her brother George next door, got an Admiral TV, the first in our building. She invited me in for Milton Berle’s Texaco Comedy Hour and Ronald Regan’s General Electric Theatre, and Radio Days were behind me.

Well, maybe not. Years after I’d stopped listening, I become a NYC policeman. Then, a criminal defense lawyer like John J. Malone, Attorney at Law (Murder and Mr. Malone, Saturday nights at 8). My first business card as a criminal lawyer read: Robert J. Knightly, Attorney at Law.

Robert Knightly