Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An interview with Randy Riddle (Rand's Esoteric OTR)

Randy Riddle runs the exciting blog, "Rand's Esoteric OTR."

I've been following his blog since I found it on the internet about 3 years ago. It's chocked full of all kinds of incredible finds from the world of OTR. If you have never been to his blog, you need to go and take a long look at it; it's amazing.

Randy has been kind enough to do an email interview for the OTR Buffet. I know you will enjoy it.

OTR BUFFET: Thanks so much for joining me and doing this interview! Your blog is definitely one of the cooler things on the internet.

Randy Riddle: Thanks - that's a great compliment.

OTR BUFFET: Please give us a little background about yourself and the blog.

Randy Riddle: I live in North Carolina and work for Duke University. I've been in the area all my life - I grew up in the mountains of NC and majored in history in school. I've always been fascinated with the thirties, forties and fifties and old time radio's a big part of that.

I started the blog about three years ago. I'd found so many great shows from other collectors on the web that I wanted to give a little something back to the hobby. I thought I might one or two shows a week, but it kind of snowballed from there.

OTR BUFFET: I'd love to know how you got involved in the world of old-time radio and also how you got involved with OTRR?

Randy Riddle: I was lucky to grow up in the early 1970s when there was the whole nostalgia craze. I was hooked on old movies on tv and that led me to discover old time radio shows like "Suspense", "The Great Gildersleeve" and "Jack Benny" that were running on public radio stations and "The CBS Radio Mystery Theater". I was also an avid listener of "Lum n' Abner" - a country FM station in Statesville, North Carolina was running it every afternoon at 5:45.

It's funny, but my parents never really listened to radio during the Golden Age, so they were never really interested in my old time radio hobby. They grew up very poor and didn't have a radio, but they remembered walking a few miles to one of the neighbor's farms on special nights to hear "Amos n' Andy" or "The Grand Ol' Opry". They got their first radio in the late fifties - a used 1932 Majestic console - after my dad got a job when he got out of the Navy. The classic otr era was over by then.

I started collecting shows on LP and tape after discovering some at my local public library. I can remember what a big deal it was to get the Radio Yesteryear catalogue and decide what LP or reel to reel tape I'd spend my precious allowance on next. Now, old time radio is so accessible on the Internet.

After I started my blog, I wanted to share my shows in a way that they would help out other otr fans and researchers. I don't put all my shows on the blog and limit the file sizes so it's workable in the blog format. I started donating transfers of my shows to OTRR so they could help circulate high quality copies of shows from the blog and some programs that I haven't posted. I've also done transfers of discs for the group and help them watch out for auctions or sales of shows they're looking for.

OTR BUFETT: Can you tell us about your transcription collection?

Randy Riddle: I had been collecting old time radio off and on for several years on tape and LP. I started collecting a few years ago when I had a chance to get a turntable that would play 16" discs. I already had styli and equalizers that I used with 78s and early lps, so collecting radio transcriptions was a nice extension of my music collecting.

I decided to concentrate on shows that were more obscure. There are many fans of "Gunsmoke", "Johnny Dollar" or "Suspense" and working on preserving them. I've been listening to the big shows for so many years, so I thought it would be interesting to go after programs I'd never heard of before.

I get some of my discs through Internet auctions, but have individuals that approach me with discs for sale on occasion. Some are literally throw-aways - transcriptions that they're ready to toss out because they couldn't sell them to other collectors.

Getting these throw-aways lets you find some rare or previously lost material. For example, many transcription collectors have so many Armed Forces Radio discs that they tend to ignore them and have many they haven't even played. Some people have the discs for sale and have no way to play them. The labels on the AFRS transcriptions only have the name of the series and the program number of the show, so you have to look at the matrix area in the vinyl around the label for a date or actually listen to the disc to see what particular show is there. That's how I found a couple of previously lost "Suspense" shows like "The Lost Special" with Orson Welles and a complete version of "The Rescue" with Jimmy Stewart.

Sometimes, I'll buy a group of 16" lacquers with no labels that can turn up lost shows. One I found a few months ago was a previously lost episode of "Here's Morgan". In that same group, there were several discs from 1947 of Los Angeles area radio stations that an engineer recorded in the studio or off the air when doing some equipment tests. So you get to hear ten or fifteen minutes of things like local dj shows or a station sign-on. I got contacted by one of the big movie studios for a copy of those discs - they're thinking about using the excerpts in the soundtrack of a period crime drama they're producing.

Things will slip through your fingers once in a while. I still get teary-eyed thinking about a set of thirty or so episodes of "Og, Son of Fire", that I wasn't able to work out a deal on from one collector. It's a CBS kids adventure show about cavemen and dinosaurs from the early 30s that's otherwise completely lost. I still wonder what that show actually sounds like.

I also try to get transcriptions that are good examples of the different ways that shows were recorded or syndicated. So, I've got an original uncoated aluminum disc of a couple of early 30s "Ma Perkins" episodes and some World Broadcasting shows and "Witch's Tale" programs that were done on experimental plastics. Several of the early shows were pressed on thick 16" shellac discs pressed by Columbia - these things weigh about three pounds each.

I've got a few master lacquers that were used to make transcriptions for a 1940s Ziv syndicated series. Recently, I got the original master pressing plates for a couple of lost 1935 episodes of "The Air Adventures of Jimmy Allen" - they're the nickel and copper plates used by World Broadcasting to press the transcriptions.

I've probably got six or seven hundred transcriptions in my collection and I'm running out of room. I've started donating some of the more historically important material to Duke University's Special Collections Library. They have the archives of the big advertising agencies and also collect in areas like Women's Studies and African-American related material. They're pleased to get the discs since I also donate an archival high quality digital copy of the discs and high resolution scans of the labels, so researchers can use them right away. It's a way to make sure the discs are preserved in the long run.

OTR BUFFET: Do you have any favorite shows/characters/actors? What would they be?

Randy Riddle: I've always been a big fan of Fred Allen, especially his "Town Hall Tonight" shows. It can be tough for a modern audience to "get" it, though. Fred's humor was topical, so you have to know a bit about what was in the news at the time to really appreciate it. And I also liked the way he would have ordinary people on the show with unusual talents or have them in panels and other bits. You can tell he really enjoyed making jokes and having a good time with the audience. If you've never heard it, check out Fred's famous "eagle" show, where a trained eagle gets loose in the audience for much of the program. You just never knew quite what would happen on a Fred Allen program.

I also like surreal humor - things like "The Goon Show" or Bob and Ray. I was giddy when I was lucky enough to get an original 16" transcription set of a couple of "Goon Show" episodes from the original 50's BBC syndicated run of the program. I also really enjoy detective shows of the forties and fifties - "The Adventures of Frank Race" is a favorite from my collection - and some of the adventure serials like "Jungle Jim".

You can find great radio in almost any genre. Probably one of the favorite transcriptions I have is an episode of the CBS soap opera "Rosemary". It has the most wonderful over the top performance by this actress playing a woman trying to run a scam on one of the lead characters. She could have taught Orson Welles a thing or two about chewing up scenery.

There's one transcription set I get out once in a while - "Command Performance - Victory Extra". It's a special show, almost two hours long, celebrating the end of World War II. It has the most amazing array of great stars and personalities there to thank the troops. It's quite an emotional experience when you think about what the country had been through and how everyone involved must have felt putting on the show.

OTR BUFFET: I tend to ask everyone this question, but no one seems to be able to come up with a good answer -- but I know you will have good one! What show should we be listening to but aren't? (Or, which show is the best show that very few people listen to?)

Randy Riddle: Ah, that's an easy one. "Nonsense and Melody". I have about half of the series in my collection and they're on the blog. It's one of those little quarter-hour variety shows that Transco syndicated in the mid-1930s. The show is hosted by comedians Frank Gill, Jr. and Bill Doemling and features these wonderful quirky thirties arrangements of popular tunes sometimes by a vocal group called the Three Jack Tars and at other times featuring soloists from the band on accordion, banjo and other odd instruments. It's a great little time capsule of pre-War music and comedy.

One series is a favorite among some of my friends - "The Two Daffodils". It features these vaudeville performers, Ken Gillum and Duke Atterbury, and was syndicated in 1930. They do this kind of stream of consciousness comedy, going from one brief comedy routine to the next and doing these clever little numbers on piano at breakneck speed. They're great fun.

There's also a fascinating show I think everyone should check out at the "Live at the Shamrock Hotel" episode of the "Sealtest Variety Theater" hosted by Dorothy Lamour with Ed Gardner as the guest. It's a fascinating look at how everything could go wrong on live radio. The engineers that set up the remote for the show at this new hotel wired everything backwards, so the engineers were going out live on the network. Then, when they fixed it, the audience and cast couldn't hear the show and weren't sure if they were really on the air. Probably the biggest disaster on live radio I've ever heard. I'd love to see the internal memos from the network and ad agency that went out after that one!

OTR BUFFET: I know you have some weird transcription stuff, because I have read about it on your blog. What's are the strangest things you have?

Randy Riddle: Well, that's a tough question. I have so many odd shows, it's hard to choose!

Probably the strangest concept for a show I've got is "Dick and Jeannie". It's a five minute daily soap syndicated in the late 1940s. The story is about this guy who works at a radio network and is trying to break into the business as a singer and this young woman he's dating. Every episode has the couple getting into misunderstandings about paying for dinner or how they feel about each other. Now, that wouldn't be so odd, but they break into a song that's related to the story on each show. I sometimes play an episode to chase away guests from my home - it's really that bad.

Another dreadful series is "Southland Echoes". It was syndicated in 1949 by Black Draught Laxative. The show has the Homeland Harmony Quartet, a pioneering Southern Gospel group, but they pair them with Jam Up n' Honey, a blackface comedy duo, and a trio of yodeling sisters. Combine that with commercials for laxative and Cardui, a tonic for women going through certain monthly changes we don't want to talk about, and it's a pretty weird little show. It probably didn't sound so odd to listeners of local country music shows in the South at the time, but it's downright surreal today.

There's one show I wish I had in my collection, but I do have some memorabilia from it. "The Hartz Radio Canaries" was a quarter hour of music played on organ and violin accompanied by live chirping canaries in the studio. It was sponsored by Hartz, which sold pet food. The idea was that you could tune in to the show to encourage your canaries to sing along to songs like "The Mexican Hat Dance" and "Tales from the Vienna Woods". It was carried on Mutual in the 30s and 40s, but there's only one episode that survives - it's in OTRR's first Singles and Doubles Collection at I've got a set of the original 78s they sold in pet shops featuring the Hartz Radio Canaries.

I've got one series I played for a liberal friend of mine that had him actually getting red-faced and yelling out loud at my transcription turntable. "American Family Robinson" was a soap opera from the mid thirties about the owner of a small town newspaper that was put out by the National Association of Manufacturers to promote conservative business policies and to fight FDR's New Deal policies. So, you've got this little drama where the characters suddenly go into these diatribes about the government taxing business too much or lazy workers with do-nothing jobs on the government dole. One of my blog readers commented that she was listening to an episode when her husband came in the room and he said, "I didn't know Ayn Rand did a radio show!"

"American Family Robinson" was heard on over 300 stations and was a big scandal at the time, but no one remembers it today. NAM produced the show under a pseudonym, "The National Industrial Council", to make it sound like it was made by some government agency. The government was producing shows to promote different government programs like music programs featuring WPA musicians or talks about new loans for housing, so the NAM felt they had to compete.

They tried to get it on both CBS and NBC and both turned them down because it was too political and controversial. NAM wound up syndicating it to stations with local businesses or a Chamber of Commerce picking up the tab. The show was the topic of Congressional hearings that investigated misleading political advertising in radio. It's funny how we've come full circle with political groups getting big money from anonymous donors doing pretty much the same thing on radio and tv today that was all over the radio in the mid-1930s.

OTR BUFFET: Everytime I visit your site lately, I see you are "on hiatus." We all need a break and it's good to take one. But we miss your blog a lot! When are you coming back?

Randy Riddle: Well, I'm pretty swamped right now with work and family. I'll probably get back to posting a few shows now and again later this Fall when things settle down a bit. It's a lot of work to transfer and restore the shows.

I'm also doing some research on an old time radio idea I've been mulling over for some time. The generation that grew up during the OTR era and the "second generation" that came after that are getting up in years. So I'm looking at how to capture the knowledge otr fans have about these shows to open up OTR to academic researchers that might be looking at World War II history, economics, women's issues or other subjects and not think of OTR as a source for material.

OTR BUFFET: Thank you so much for the interview!

Randy Riddle: Thank you - glad to oblige!

©Jimbo 2010/2011

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