Golden Age of Radio Returns

Before television, families gathered around the radio to listen to music and entertainment. Comedies, mysteries, and science fiction skits became especially popular, relying on masterful storytelling and sound effects to spark the imagination–no screen required.

The Edmond Historical Society & Museum began reenacting famous radio shows in 2018 as part of its living history program. Actors read the scripts before a live audience, sound effects are created on stage, and live music is often incorporated. The 1940s Radio Theater produces three shows a year and just won an Oklahoma Museum Association award.

“We pick the script to tie into a current exhibit,” said Anna Studstill, director of education. “We recently had an animal photography display, so we performed animal-themed skits from Archie Andrews, Father Knows Best, and Tarzan.”

The first script the museum presented was a World War II show to coincide with a WWII exhibit. The Fibber McGee and Molly show was a comedy about collecting scrap metal. Since then, the shows have ranged from a Flash Gordon episode to the Gracie Allen Runs for President stunt.

Those who have never listened to old radio are usually surprised by their familiarity with the shows, because they have seeped into today’s pop culture. The famous “Who’s on First?” skit was a radio original, as were the characters of The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. The everlasting Christmas hit, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, gained popularity on Gene Autry’s “singing cowboy” show. And, the phrase “faster than a speeding bullet” was first applied to Superman on the radio, not in the comic book.

The museum’s shows are directed by Barrett Huddleston, who has a Ph.D. in theater. He enjoys working with the community cast, which sometimes includes child actors. He’s especially intrigued by the eclectic crowd the radio shows draw. “The audiences are so polyvalent, in that there are very different kinds of attendees in the same room,” said Huddleston. “Some were alive when these radio dramas first came out, so their attendance is purely nostalgic, but we also have young Edmond hipsters coming because it’s a cheap date night, and they are laughing at the irony of how families were portrayed back in the 1940s.”

When the pandemic began, the radio shows easily transferred to Zoom and video formats. Last winter’s Holiday Cooking Disaster show featured online comedy skits about food. “The most surprising was a version of Betty Crocker teaching women the recipe for war steak, a revolting concoction of ground beef and cornflakes,” said Huddleston. “It’s funny now, but it was a serious food- stretching suggestion during the war.”

To celebrate the museum’s Olympics exhibit, 1940s Radio Theater recently delved into a sci-fi script known ‘round the world: the famed production War
of the Worlds. The 1938 broadcast sounded so realistic that some listeners thought Martians had actually attacked. “We spoofed the script, setting it in modern-day Edmond, with live music played by Kyle Dillingham and a cameo appearance by Mayor Darrell Davis. No Edmond landmarks were blasted in the making of that show, by the way,” Studstill added with a laugh. “Our next radio reenactment is planned for Valentine’s Day.”

Regardless if you remember listening to old-time radio or are seeking screen-free family entertainment, 1940s Radio Theater is an entertaining way to experience history and pop culture from eighty years ago—in person!

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