By Richard Menta 12/31/08
For the last few years I have been listening to old radio programs on MP3 as I commute to and from work. Thanks to the compression abilities of the MP3 format, collectors of these decades-old programs are able to compress around 100 half-hour episodes on a single CD and, for a few dollars, share them on eBay. To me they are not just jewels of public-domain content, but history of a bygone era as well.
I find these audio programs perfect for the ride in and no more dated than any old TV show or movie. In fact, I find that these episodes sooth me as I lay locked up in bumper-to-bumper traffic, while irate drivers take to the shoulder to gain a 5-car advantage over other irate drivers.
One hour commutes were not the norm in 1949 when most people lived in or near the town that they worked in. Maybe this is why so many of these programs seemed more focused on local community in their stories, a punch-clock era when moms and dads were both home by 5:30 in the afternoon.
Transportation and communication were considerably less developed in those days and this fact constantly nagged in my mind as I listened. There was no NJ Turnpike or Garden State Parkway to pull our jobs farther from our homes, just local roads. Air travel was propeller-driven and for the affluent. Everyone else took the train, which required 4 days to cross the country. Broadcast radio was 25 years old, but the first two television networks (NBC and Dumont) were only three. TV was also for the affluent as a set cost nearly two months salary for the average person.
Evolution in transportation and communications has changed us and we are not so locally focused anymore. Yet, I experienced first-hand how the most modern and fluid device of world communications, the Internet, can bring disparate people to both another time and another community.
Recently I started listening to a collection of 150 episodes I purchased of Eve Arden's "Our Miss Brooks", her hit radio show that ran on the CBS radio network from 1948 to 1956. Over a couple of weeks I had listened to about 40 episodes - two shows going to work, two shows coming back - when one particular episode from July 31 of 1949 caught my attention. The title of the episode, New Job in Norwich CT. was tied into a marketing campaign for Colgate Palmolive.
Dubbed the Forty-niner Gold Rush contest the winner, a Mrs. Ray Theil, took home a check for $49,000. As part of her prize Mrs. Theil's world as secretary to the Mayor of Norwich would be rolled into the plot of an upcoming episode. This is where my contribution to this 60 year-old event begins and how it comes to a closure for one family.
In an effort to make the plot more interesting the writer (who happened to be Al 'Grampa" Lewis from Munsters fame) chose not to focus on Mrs. Theil, but her boss Richard Marks, who for the story was cast as the former employer of Miss Brooks. With the expectation that the newly wealthy Mrs. Theil would leave her job and looking to improve upon her lowly teacher's salary, the plot centers on Miss Brooks attempts to contact Mr. Marks for the position.
And so Mr. Marks, who had no association with the event directly, received a pleasant dose of coast-to-coast media exposure; something that at that time was mostly reserved for celebrities and the nation's largest power brokers.
This blast of media exposure certainly didn't hurt his re-election opportunities. Yet, what was going through my mind as I listened to the episode was not the free press a small town politician garnered that night. Instead, the image that came to mind was more human and simpler; a local man huddled with his family around the radio as they share 27 minutes of unexpected national fame. It must have been thrilling for his closest friends and relatives to hear Eve Arden close the show by saying "And I would like Mayor Richard J Marks of Norwich, CT to know that I consider him a swell ex-boss and I would enjoy meeting him sometime. Goodnight".
Now I will readily admit that I get curious about the oddest thing and then take efforts to satisfy that curiosity. I doubt many people would have attempted to search out Mayor Marks on the Internet as I did, I mean who really cares? Let's just say when I get a bug in my bonnet this is one of the things I do.
Not surprisingly I found little on Mayor Marks, but what I did find caught me completely off guard. It was a post by the Mayor's nephew, Johnny Marks, who a few months earlier put out a feeler online in search of information about his uncle! I figured he would be interested in what I had.
Funny, isn't it? Here I am a complete stranger with an arguably stranger penchant to satiate my oddest distractions and yet this proclivity combined with the Internet can so easily deliver to someone what amounts to a family treasure. It made me think about the technology and delivery choices of that past era. How much easier it is today to connect with others. I replied to the post and sent with it the MP3 of the entire episode.
Here is his response:
Johnny, you are very, very welcome.
For those interested in listening to the episode New Job in Norwich CT, the MP3 file of it is here courtesy of FreeOTRShows.com.
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