October 30, 2007
Growing Up in the 1930s: How Media Changes Our Relations to the Past

I like to tell people that I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s.

Stop! Before you update my Wikipedia entry, please note that I am speaking metaphorically and not literally. Despite my gray beard and despite how I feel on some Monday mornings, I'm not really that old! I was born in 1958! But a number of things happened in my mid-childhood which utterly fixated my fantasy life on the mid-20th century.

For one thing, when my grandmother died, I was helping my parents go through her old house and we found a trunk in her basement crammed with 1940s Life magazines (along with a range of other publications of the era). As a kid, I would spend hours going through the magazines, looking with fascination at pictures of Jitterbug contests, reading articles about the Blitzkrieg, or most interestingly, looking at old advertisements and wondering what archaic candybars had tasted like. The magazine covered everything -- from the most important political and military events of the era to the most mundane aspects of everyday life and taught me to see social and cultural history as the essential backdrop against which to make sense of the big events that dominate our history classes. I would grill everyone older than myself about the world of their childhood, trying to find out what it was really like to live in the past.

Second, I was nearsighted and we didn't know it until I was deep into elementary school and for that reason, I didn't really enjoy contemporary movies very much. They were just a big blur for me. I'd get lost in big movie theaters. My mother would send me out to go to the bathroom by myself or to get popcorn and I'd be unable to find my way back to her, wandering through the theater staring at the faces of people and not recognizing anyone. But I loved to watch movies on television, sitting close to the screen, and would from an early age beg to stay up and watch Academy Award Theater to see vintage movies.

Adding to this, there was a children's show in Atlanta in those days called Tubby and Lester; its hosts modeled themselves on Laurel and Hardy; and instead of cartoons, they would show Our Gang, Three Stooges, and silent slapstick comedies, all of which I became passionate about and, just as importantly, I developed a mastery over, tracking down every book I could get on old movies, and play acting their adventures in my backyard. In the afternoons, I would race home from school to catch the afternoon creep show screenings of old Universal horror films, read Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and practice my monster walks. I got in a knock down fight with my best friend that sent us both to see the principal over my preference for Bela Lugosi's Dracula over the then heart-throb Barnabas Collins (Dark Shadows).

My seventh grade term paper tried to retell the entire history of the Hollywood movie industry in 10 pages. My father, to his dying day, accused me of having rewritten the same term paper ever since. It became the way he understood what it meant for me to be a media scholar.

Then, there was music. I would beg my parents to play their old 78 records of swing music -- especially those of Danny Kaye and the Andrew Sisters -- and much preferred these sounds to anything my contemporaries were listening to. I recall with horror when I accidentally cracked a vintage recording of Vaughn Monroe and his Orchestra doing "Ghost Riders in the Sky."

And last but certainly not least, there was radio. I was lucky that an Atlanta radio station for a few years experimented with doing classic radio all day, all the time. I'd listen to early soaps in the morning before going to school, listen to children's shows and adventure serials in the afternoon when I got home, and laugh over classic comedy in the evenings when my friends were watching prime time television. On Sundays, there was the Lux Radio Theater and Mercury Theater and other great drama series. I listened to anything and everything, intrigued by the old stories and in love with the crackle of the old recordings and what they did to what Roland Barthes calls "the grain of the voice."

All of this made me exceedingly odd to my classmates, who could not understand my interests in any of this, and probably contributed to making me a social pariah in my adolescent years, but all of it also made me who I am today. When I first started dating the woman who would become my wife, my future father-in-law would grill me about trivia of the period. I think I won his approval by linking a particular line back to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. After a while, we would talk passionately together about the culture of the depression and the Second World War as if we were there, as if this had been a shared experience.

It was no accident that my undergraduate thesis dealt with films of the depression or that my PhD dissertation centered on vaudeville and early sound comedy. The popular culture of this era was my early love and still spills over into some of my current projects -- see my posts on Vaudeville and YouTube, on Charlotte Greenwood, on Retrofuturism and the 1939 World's Fair -- and look forward to an essay I'm currently developing on the so-called "vulgar modernists" of the post-war period (with a particular emphasis on Harvey Kurtzman, Spike Jones, Hellzapoppin, and Tex Avery).

The fact that I read the period across all of these media platforms, probably contributes to my current interest in adopting comparative approaches to media studies. I was able from the start to draw connections between magazines, films, radio shows, and music of the period in a way which was not yet locked within the medium specific disciplines which structure how formal education talks about such matters. I was, as I said in the first sentence, able to "live" in the 1930s and 1940s because I was able to re-experience such a complex web of media representations from the era, all at the same time, and trace connections between them. I knew what the period looked like; I knew what it sounded like; I knew how it thought; I knew what made it laugh; the only thing I couldn't do was taste those candy bars and other products I saw in its advertisements or heard discussed on radio commercials.

Why am I telling you this? After all, most of you are here for my posts about contemporary cultural matters, about digital media and transmedia storytelling, about Web 2.0. and I almost never get any comments on those posts that deal with older media materials. More's the pity. I tell my students that we really can't understand where media is going without knowing where it's been and there are many clues to understanding the complex cultural grid constructed by modern media by making it strange, by visiting the media systems of other cultures (whether around the world or in our own past.)

Today, I am writing about this because I wanted to share my excitement over discovering the Old Time Radio Catalog website. OTR was a company I remember from my youth. My mom and dad used to give me a treat by buying LPs of vintage radio shows from this company via mail order as birthday or Christmas presents. But at the time, they sold a single episode for the price of an album. Well, today, thanks to new technologies and new ways of clustering our experience of media, the company now offers full or near full runs of classic series in Mp3 format for the absurdly low price of 5 dollars per disc. (Longer series require multiple discs, but many series fit within a single disc.)

Several things are coming together here to reshape our access to and experience of Old Time Radio. First, there is the MP3 format itself, which makes it possible to fit so much content on a small disc, which can be cheaply reproduced and shipped by mail. It makes it possible to sell radio in bulk.

Second, there is the modern phenomenon of the boxed dvd set of television series, which shapes our expectations to be able to watch (or in this case, listen to) the complete run of a series in order and thus fuels our expectations for encyclopedic mastery and plentitude. Why would I want to listen to a single isolated episode when it is possible to own it all, consume it all. Suddenly I am back in Atlanta in the mid-1970s when it was possible to listen to an episode a week of Fibber Mcgee and Molly or follow along in the serialized adventures of Lum and Abner or I Love a Mystery. Old Time Radio, like television, was a long form medium and you can only really appreciate it by living with its characters over time and watch them grow across episodes.

Third, there is the web itself. In my earlier discussion of retrofuturism, I talked about the ways that the web was making it possible for fans of vintage media (just like all other kinds of niches) to find each other, for people to assemble and share archives (like the wonderful folks who are making early sound comedy and musical numbers available via YouTube), and which are allowing us to pool our knowledge about past popular culture in one spot (as in the rich entries in Wikipedia on some of these classic media texts.)

The Old Time Radio site takes full advantages of the web, most spectacularly by offering samples -- full length episodes -- of most of the shows which it sells. Each day, they showcase a particular program from the collection, often an episode which aired on that date originally, so you can enjoy holiday themed episodes on the right days. You could spend countless hours just rummaging through the catalog, listening to one or another of their vintage broadcasts. The first thing you would discover is that they have everything there -- the wartime lectures of Bertram Russell, the sermons of Father Coughlin, full broadcasts of key baseball games, the FDR fireside chats, a fascinating collection of movie advertisements from the radio era, old game shows -- and not just the comedies, dramas, and science fiction shows which most often characterize the collector culture around vintage radio. There are two fascinating recordings which capture a full day's broadcasts on a particular station -- one showing how America got the news about D-Day and the other showing the progression of a much more typical broadcast day -- which allow us to experience the flow of programs and place individual genres within their larger programming context. There are also sets organized around particular performers -- Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Robert Benchley, Orson Welles -- which allow us to trace their movement across programs. There's a smattering of programming from other countries, particularly British and South African radio. And there are sets which bring together the innovative broadcasts of particular radio auteurs, such as Norman Corwin or Arch Obler, who represented some of the key innovators in the medium. But at the heart of it, there are the classic series -- 116 episodes of Henry Aldrich, 274 episodes of Burns and Allen, 939 episodes of Jack Benny -- which suggest just how long lived some of the great shows really were and how they captured and responded to such a large period of the history of the 20th Century.

I have spent several hundred dollars so far buying up some of these collections. I haven't listened to everything I've bought yet. My life hasn't allowed me to give myself over so fully to my passions. But everything I have listened to so far has been of surprisingly good quality. In some cases, I am re-engaging with old favorites. In others, I am making new discoveries or listening to shows that have long fascinated me but have been impossible to access before. I compare it to that moment when TNT first went on the air and the network was indiscriminately dumping anything and everything from its vast archives on at wee hours in the morning, not sure what would connect with contemporary viewers.

For me, as for many consumers decades older than me, it is a return to the world of my childhood and I had to share the experience with my readers.