Radio

September 8, 1957 – Pope Pius XII on the New Media, a “Wonderful Invention”

His Holiness Pope Pius XII

On September 8, 1957, Pope Pius XII issued the 39th of his 41 encyclicals, or circular letters, on that cultural doppelganger, the media.  At the age of 81 and midway through year eighteen of his almost twenty-year pontificate, Pius XII saw the need to give direction to church authorities and the Catholic faithful about motion pictures, radio and television – technologies that were entirely new creations during his lifetime.  Miranda Prorsus, which is Latin for “wonderful invention,” begins by claiming that television, movies, and radio “spring from human intelligence and industry,” but “are nevertheless gifts from God, Our Creator, from Whom all good gifts proceed.”  His Holiness continued with his reasons for writing his letter:

“Just as very great advantages can arise from the wonderful advances which have been made in our day, in technical knowledge concerning Motion Pictures, Radio and Television, so too can very great dangers.

“For these new possessions and new instruments which are within almost everyone’s grasp, introduce a most powerful influence into men’s minds, both because they can flood them with light, raise them to nobility, adorn them with beauty, and because they can disfigure them by dimming their lustre,  dishonour them by a process of corruption, and make them subject to uncontrolled passions, according as the subjects presented to the senses in these shows are praiseworthy or reprehensible.

“In the past century, advancing technical skill in the field of business frequently had this result: machines, which ought to serve men, when brought into use, rather reduced them to a state of slavery and caused grievous harm.  Likewise today, unless the mounting development of technical skill, applied to the diffusion of pictures, sounds and ideas, is subjected to the sweet yoke of the law of Christ, it can be the source of countless evils, which appear to be all the more serious, because not only material forces but also the mind are unhappily enslaved, and man’s inventions are, to that extent, deprived of those advantages which, in the design of God’s Providence, ought to be their primary purpose.”

Pius went on to declare that the Church had the sacred right and duty to further its mission to sanctify souls by using the new media to spread truth and virtue.  He acknowledged that governments had the responsibility to spread news and teachings for the common good of society.  Individual citizens could also use media to enrich their own and others’ intellectual and spiritual culture.  But Pius denounced people who used these new avenues of communication “exclusively for the advancement and propagation of political measures or to achieve economic ends,” or for anything “contrary to sound morals” that would put souls in danger.

Following specific sections addressed to both makers and consumers of television shows, movies, and radio programs, Pope Pius XII entrusted his new precepts and instructions to the Pontifical Commission for Motion Pictures, Radio and Television.  He expressed his “firm confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s cause” and imparted his Apostolic Benediction on all within the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Image Credit: The Vatican

Vintage 1957 – A Comedy Revolution

 

In the 1950s, stand-up comedy went through something of a revolution. In broad outline, comedy of the 1930s most often took the form of physical slapstick in the movies – think the Marx Brothers, Abbot & Costello, etc. In the 1940s, the rising popularity of radio broadcasts ushered in less physical and more verbal comedy. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Henny Youngman all perfected the art of one-liners, story gags, and “groaners” (“I just flew in from St. Louis . . . and boy are my arms tired!” or “Take my wife . . . please!”).

Comedy in the 1950s turned topical. Journalist and author Gerald Nachman, who covered entertainment news for the New York Post, the Oakland Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the San Francisco Chronicle, shines a light on the shift in his 2009 book, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Nachman provides detailed biographies of 26 comedians, including Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and Steve Allen. Politics, sex, race relations, drugs, self-angst, pop media and celebrity, all were suddenly fair game for public airing, often in satirical or cynical ways.

How does comedy work? What makes us laugh?

Laughter can be cathartic. It can lighten our spirits in difficult times. The Great Depression and World War II of the 1930s and 1940s were dark times. People looked to comedy for relief from anxiety and despair.

But laughter also serves as a leveler. It can burst bubbles and open eyes, providing a wake-up call for others or for ourselves. It can be a subtle instrument or sharp weapon against complacency, pretension, self-absorption, mindless conformity, and attitudes of superiority and arrogance. It can slip in “under the radar” to powerfully say, “Take a look at yourself and your culture.”

The comedians of the 1950s – subtle or blunt – had new, sometimes uncomfortable things to say. And they were heard.

Image Credits: ABC Films; NBC Television; New York World-Telegram & Sun; Towpilot; Rollins & Joffe; Allan Warren; AP; Concord Jazz

August 26, 1957 – Paul Anka’s Crush on “Diana”

 

On August 26, 1957, Paul Anka’s “Diana” ranked #1 on WMGM-New York City’s Top 40 Survey. In My Way: An Autobiography, Anka revealed that Diana Ayoub was the inspiration for the song he wrote in the fall of 1956, at age 15. “When I was fifteen, I developed a crush on a nineteen-year-old girl who worked as a secretary in the offices of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Ottawa . . . . I saw her in church and at community events – and I was smitten.

“Diana was my first infatuation. I had such a serious crush on her. I made my advances as a youngster and failed dismally. She wanted nothing to do with me. Diana was my inspiration, the fantasy girlfriend – and imagined problem (“I’m so young and you’re so old, this my darling, I’ve been told”). In truth it never got anywhere near that. I think she just thought it was funny someone so much younger than her – three years! – wanted to date her. That’s where songs come from: out of stories you tell yourself in your mind.”

“Diana” reached the top of both the Billboard  and R&B Best Sellers charts, and the second slot on Billboards’ Top 100. Sixteen-year-old Anka was on his way to a long, successful career.

Vintage 1957 – DJ Wee Willie Nelson at KVAN

 

 

In 1957, Mrs. Myrle Nelson tended bar at the Goble Tavern in Goble, Oregon. The tavern and the grange hall were aging remnants from the small community’s timber industry past. Across the Columbia River, in Vancouver, Washington, radio KVAN employed Meryl’s son, a 24-year-old aspiring country singer-songwriter who went by the on-air name of “Wee Willie Nelson.”

Willie already had a songbook started and probably played for the tavern’s patrons. Kathy Dalton Showalter, whose parents owned the Goble at the time, says, “everyone played in those days . . . and it was just the employee’s son, you know? . . . Nobody would have paid attention.” Current Goble resident Harvey Meyers lets the cat out of the bag with a story from his father, Rusty Meyers, who led “the best Western swing band in the Northwest” and was also a disc jockey at KVAN. Willie approached Rusty to sit in with his band. Rusty refused because he “just couldn’t stand Willie’s voice,” which he described as “whiney” and likened to a “stuck hog.”

But 1957 turned out to be the start of something big for Nelson. He cut his first single under the “Willie Nelson Records” label. Side A presented “No Place For Me.” Side B offered “Lumber Jack,” a “lumberjack-theme . . . pandering to Oregonian pride.” It went exactly nowhere.

Not so with Willie. The man who arrived in the Northwest to “cadge money from his mother,” went “on the road again” for Texas and the big time. Patsy Cline recorded “Crazy” in 1961, which climbed to No. 2 on the country music charts in 1962. Willie also released his first album that year, “. . . And Then I Wrote.”

July 7, 1957 – Johnny Dollar, Radio Crime-Solver

Yours_Truly_Johnny_Dollar_BaileyOn July 7, 1957, Johnny Dollar, the “fabulous freelance insurance investigator with the action-packed expense account” solved the case of “The Felicity Feline Matter“.  Even after the advent of television, the fifties were still part of the golden age of radio dramas.  Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was a classic detective series which began in January, 1949 and concluded its long run with a final broadcast on September 30, 1962.  Eight men voiced Johnny over the years, and Johnny No. 6, Bob Bailey (October 1955 – November 1960) is considered by radio crime aficionados to be the best.

Each case (almost always referred to as a “matter”) followed a standard format: Johnny received a call from an insurance executive asking him to investigate an unusual claim; Johnny traveled to a distant locale; Johnny solved the case while indulging in romance and threatened by danger.  Each story was told in flashback as Johnny reviewed his expense account; transportation, lodging, and food entries prompted the story development.  Incidentals occasionally popped up: “Item nine, 10 cents. Aspirin.  I needed them”, and “Two cents. What I felt like”.  At the conclusion of each episode, Johnny would calculate and submit the grand total.

The original Johnny was smart, tough, and a wisecracker.  He was the policeman’s friend, but didn’t necessarily follow the law.  He and his airwave competition – Richard Diamond, Philip Marlowe, and Sam Spade – were all fairly interchangeable.  When Yours Truly returned after a one-year hiatus in October 1955, Bob Bailey and his new writers (primarily Jack Johnstone, Robert Ryf, and Les Crutchfield) made Johnny more sensitive and thoughtful.  They experimented with five-part weekday serials, which allowed them to explore more detailed plots, then reverted to a half-hour weekly show.  In all, there were 811 episodes in Johnny’s 12-year run.  “Felicity Feline” was #544.

Image Credit: vintageradioclassics.com

June 28, 1957 – “Date with the Angels”

Date with the Angels

One June 28, 1957, families home on this Friday night could tune in to ABC’s new comedy series, “Date with the Angels.” Bill Williams and Betty White starred as Gus and Vicki Angel, a somewhat clueless insurance salesman and his “wacky” wife (was one of the working titles for this series, “I Love Betty”?). Bill Williams was familiar to audiences from his role in “The Adventures of Kit Karson” and for his real-life role as the husband of Barbara Hale, soon to appear as the sultry-smart Della Street on “The Perry Mason Show.” Betty White’s successful career in radio and television had recently skyrocketed with “Life with Elizabeth.” In popular “Elizabeth,” a comedy sketch series, twenty-eight-year-old White had full control as both star and producer – the first television series ever to be produced by a woman.

“Date with the Angels” owed some of its premise to “Dream Girl,” a play by Elmer Rice. As originally envisioned by White, each episode would include extensive and hilarious daydreaming by Vicki Angel. Show sponsors were not amused. Pressured to remove the sequences, White felt that she was left with only “one more run-of-the-mill domestic comedy.” “I can honestly say,” she revealed, “that was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show.”

Not to worry. The future would hold only greater success for White, including award-winning roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “The Golden Girls.” Current-day reviewers of “Date with the Angels” credit White’s performance as “lovely,” “talented,” “delightful,” “dares you to tune out while she’s onscreen,” “never burlesque or over-the-top,” “always believable,” “gorgeous,” “smart,” and “a class act.” One reviewer points out that White had “a beautiful singing voice” and that Vicki’s songs were “one of the pleasant surprises in this fine series.”

Image Credit: IMDB

October 4, 1957 – Soviets Launch Sputnik 1

Sputnik 1. Photo: NASA

 

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union upped the ante in the Space Race with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite.  Blasted through the atmosphere from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a two-stage R-7 rocket, Sputnik 1 was a 23-inch diameter, 184 pound, aluminum-magnesium-titanium sheathed sphere with two whip-like antennae.  Powered by silver-zinc batteries, it entered a low, elliptical orbit emitting a radio signal which could be received on Earth by both Soviet scientists and the curious (and highly-alarmed) American public.  Sputnik traveled 18,000 miles per hour, completing an Earth-orbit every 96 minutes.  Radio transmissions continued for 22 days, until transmitter batteries were exhausted.  The history-making satellite spent 3 months in orbit, traveling a total of 37 million miles, before burning up in atmospheric reentry on January 4, 1958.

While not able to conduct as many experiments as the Soviets had initially hoped, Sputnik was able to gather information during its three-month run concerning the density of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere, and meteoroid detection by penetration of the satellite’s outer hull.

The successful launch of an artificial satellite was one of the primary goals of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), inaugurated on July 1, 1957.  The Soviets had first proposed developing such a satellite on May 27, 1954, and President Dwight Eisenhower announced on July 29, 1955 that the United States would send their own version of the technological achievement into space during the IGY.  But Sputnik took America and its government by surprise.  Americans now had to take Soviet scientific abilities much more seriously.  A sense of vulnerability to attack led to panic reactions by the public, as they listened in to Sputnik’s ominous “beep-beep” when it passed directly overhead.  The US government responded with renewed commitment to scientific and technological research, and military and educational program revamping and investment.  ICBMs, missile defense systems, and satellites were all placed on a developmental fast-track.  After several failed attempts, the United States’ first successful launch of its own artificial satellite, Explorer 1, occurred on January 31, 1958.

Numerous references to Sputnik in movies, television shows, and pop songs have made the term part of the American cultural landscape.  Replicas and models of the satellite can be found at the United Nations, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and the Science Museum in London.