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Pre Television Entertainment in the Early 20th Century

Leonard Maltin is a film critic and entertainment historian author for many books, primarily those about cinema.  The name Leonard Maltin is know by many, due to his syndicated television series Entertainment Tonight in the early 80’s and his syndicated radio program, “Leonard Maltin on Video.”  As an author, Maltin is best known for his Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, an annually updated guide on movies and videos.

American Broadcasted Radio, in the first half of the 20th century, was a major advancement in technology; it was introduced in 1920.  The radio slowly made it into the houses of most Americans, bringing with it mostly entertainment.  Radio was not just “something you listened to while doing something else;”1 it was a way of life for many.  Soap operas, comedies, news coverage, and sports programming were a few of the things that caused so many Americans to tune in regularly for these scheduled programs.  In Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast, he goes into great detail on the ins and outs of radio shows-from the lives of the actors, to growth and development of sound effects in the studio.

In the beginning of the book, Leonard Maltin explains how American lives changed in order to adapt to the coming of the radio.  Even before the radio was known by the masses, it was developed for the military and then adopted by civilians to transmit important wireless messages quickly, and it was never thought to have become a medium for entertainment.  In the early 20’s, radio was considered a novelty, as it had not yet gone mainstream; this was not until RCA mass produced the radio and made it, “a common household utility.”2 Upon its success with the public, it was disliked by newspapers and theaters, as people began tuning in to programs such as Amos’ n’ Andy- a soap opera and folk humor- for free.  “Drama became a staple of radio programming in the 1920’s,”3 unlike today’s mostly music radio broadcasts.  As soap operas and plays over the air became more popular, writers for the radio audience realized that, “writing for the eye is different from writing for the ear,”and that the audience needed stories dramatized, not read.4   The heart of a radio broadcasting station was the director.  He would run the studio every day, hire the actors, keep the tempo of the station up, and motivate workers.  The director’s life was not one for the faint of heart as it was a demanding job.  Although many directors moved into the television business in the 50’s, most missed the unique lifestyle that radio had to offer.

The heart and soul of the play or show were the sound effects men and the actors.  Not only did they have to be dedicated, but also extremely talented.  A part of the book that Maltin goes into extensive detail about is that of the sound effects, and the effects of sound.  Sound effects were important and “necessary to produce the illustration of reality,”5 in order for the audience to imagine the scene.  Many conducted great experimentation in order to get the correct sounds, such as using an air conditioning vent for the sound of flying rockets, and using watermelons for the sound of smashing skulls.  The role of a soundman was very important in the studio, but it wasn’t one for everyone.  This job required, “great ingenuity and persistence”6 in order to generate the sound and to be able to play it on cue.  The job as a soundman was immensely involved until Arthur W. Nicolas created a new contraption.  Nicolas created an apparatus, which played many recorded sound effects, cutting down the amount of manual sound effects that were required to be done in the studio.  Not only was the creation of the sound hard, but also being able to cue the sounds at the correct time was also crucially important as “one bad sound cue can wreck a program.”7 For those few who had the opportunity to be a soundman, they took pride in their work and were extremely detailed.  They took joy in “knowing the specifics of the script” as the director encouraged it as well.8 In the late 40’s, the term “sound effects” became extinct after the term “sound patterns was coined.”9 These recordings were more realistic as they could be recorded wherever in order to mimic the actual sound of the effect.  The great downfall of sound effects was when television was popularized in the 1950’s.  With a visible character and setting, there was no longer the need to visualize it for the audience. Although many sound men moved to work with comedy on the TV stations, they still missed “being a sound man” because it “never got dull.”10   In addition to the soundmen being skillful, the actors had to be talented as well.  It was essential that they “could do their job even in their first glance at a script.”11 These jobs were quite challenging, as they required great skill and talent in order to make a radio show air flawlessly.

Unlike today’s media- cluttered with advertisements- radio stations were sponsored by a single company that was not an annoyance.  These single “sponsors controlled an entire show,”12 integrating their advertisements into the program seamlessly, which impacted listeners greatly.  For example, The Ipana Toothpaste Company sponsored many shows during its existence.  The company would require for the announcer to use the greeting “Jell-o again” for hello again.  This created a fad nation wide, causing many to actually change their toothpaste brand.  These sponsors were restrictive on what the station could and could not say.  They would “restrict ads”13 of those who were competitors and not allow the station to speak on topics that were disliked. These broadcasts were often produced in front of a live audience.  These live audiences “gave the performers a live quality and reaction.” 14 The main problem with a live audience was that they would giggle and laugh at performers.  This would allow the people listening over the air to hear as well.  Although many thought that it should be prevented, audiences at home grew to enjoy the double laugh.  Unlike movie stars, radio actors did not receive glamour, fame, or money, but the job provided steady work.  The actor’s life during the great depression was dramatically better than others.  Their job was more stable and pay was substantially better.  The actor’s life was as hectic and laid back as the director.  They would often be in the studio the whole day, but there would be long waits in between broadcasts.  Many described their life as “anything but calm,” working long hours to please others.  Although their work schedule and requirements seemed hectic, many found “satisfaction from the work itself, and the working atmosphere.” 15 In the beginning, radio was considered “the enemy by Hollywood power brokers”16 Exhibitors complained that stars appearing on the radio were giving away for free what theaters would make money off of, but finally, they came to peace.  The two were able to “peacefully coexist”17 to support one another.  Radios would promote new movies while movies would give radios scripts for airtime.

Although Maltin focuses on radio’s screenplays, he included music, as it was important in filling in the empty time between broadcasts.  The way music is played on radio today is far from the same to what it was before.  Stations presented live music of immense cultural diversity compared to today’s pre recorded “narrow cast medium where country music fans would tune into an all-country station”18 Live performances were always broadcasted and eventually radio became more of a medium for disc jockeys playing recorded music like today.  The end of an era of major broadcasting came with the introduction of the television.  Many were skeptical that television was a “practical reality.”19 Those who switched over to the television business soon found out it to be like a different reality.  They needed to show more and would have to commit more to memory.  The 1950’s yielded the last batch of children to grow up with a sense of what dramatic radio is like.  With the popularization of television and the fading of the radio, there was no medium that provided a stimulating experience for people to use their imagination any longer.

In this book, Leonard Maltin praises radio, for it has given him an unforgettable experience. Maltin is writing in memory of radio’s past, bringing back the unforgettable moments that he cherishes- as well as giving radio the respect it deserves from those who are unfamiliar to this medium.

Leonard Maltin focuses his work on cinema and the history of entertainment.  His bias leans towards great admiration for any form of entertainment, radio being one of them.  Maltin has also spent a significant part of his life being part of radio, giving it a special place in his heart.  Maltin is relatively heartbroken that the medium of radio is no longer as powerful as it was, but he has moved on and focused most of his works on cinema.   Maltin remains neutral as he writes this book in memory of this lost medium.

The book was written in the late 1990’s during the Neo-Conservative historiography era.  Traditional American values are stressed, such as America’s superiority in technology.  During this time period, technology really began to advance.  Television and computers gained extreme popularity, and with the height of the economy, only fueled the technological addiction for Americans.

In his review from the New York Post, Ruth Bayard Smith praises Maltin for creating a book that is great to read with immense information.  Bayard describes his pleasurable reading experience to have been filled with a “seemingly boundless enthusiasm” from the author.20 Smith seemed pleased with Maltin’s vast amount of first-person narratives and anecdotes; however, because the citations of the sources of the material were skimpy, the book was “limited as a historical reference.”21

Maltin’s review on American broadcasting is very detailed, but only goes through the part of the history that radio leaves behind.  He only talks about what he has experienced with radio, radio soaps and shows, not giving a comprehensive review of radio as a whole.  However, the lack of any heavy bias and Maltin’s trademark warmth, wit, and style makes the book an easy and pleasurable reading.

Radio played a major role in entertainment in the history of American Art.  It was not something tangible, but it required a special touch and talent in order to correctly accomplish it right.  Radio really opened up the doors for other forms of entertainment to come later on, such as the television set.  It is iconic to the history of America and has engrained many memories to those who lived through it.

Radio in the early part of the 20th century played a major role in the entertainment and lifestyle of most Americans.  This form of entertainment has opened up the doors to many other forms, making it the foundation for many of the technological advances we have today.  This is now a lost medium, but should be remembered by all of us.

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20. Smith, Ruth B. "The Great American Broadcast Review."New York Times [New York] 9 11 1997, n. pag. Print.
21. Smith, Ruth B. "The Great American Broadcast Review."New York Times [New York] 9 11 1997, n. pag. Print.