Sunday, June 13, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.30: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 30

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Dva

Old Time Radio

"What evil lurks in the hearts of men?" the speaker blares. A chilling laugh follows. My father chuckles along. He recites the next phrase with the radio announcer, "The Shadow knows!"

That's how he listened to dramas in front of his children and his grandchildren. He spoke the key lines like, "X minus five, four, three, two, X minus one," or "The Lone Ranger rides again!" He grew up with all genres of shows on the airwaves. For crime tales or suspense, he had The Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Dragnet, and Johnny Dollar. For science fiction, he had Beyond Tomorrow, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, X Minus One, and Space Patrol. He got cowboy adventures from The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke. To scare himself, he listened to horror tales as described by Lights Out, Escape, and The Whistler.

But his favorites were comedies. And the ultimate comedy of his childhood was the Jack Benny show. Something about the character, his unashamed cheapness, his bad violin playing, and his cleverness appealed not only to my father but to most of the nation. My father made time for most of Jack Benny's compatriots and competitors like Grace and Allen, Amos and Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Spike Jones, and more. He enjoyed the relatively short-lived Mel Blanc show. Mel, the "man of a thousand voices," performed the characters and part of the sound effects, too, for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Jack Benny, and a dozen other, popular shows. My father spoke of Mel Blanc's voice artistry in the same breath, sometimes, as the Mills Brothers when they were young and sang their own instrument parts.

As a father, he tried to share his favorite episodes with me and my brothers. As a grandfather, he did the same. My kids found the radio horror dramas too frightening but they liked most of the rest. Although I sympathized with them, one of my fondest radio memories is a scary adventure, a half-hour drama from Escape called "Leiningen Versus the Ants."

The drama centers on a man who owns a Brazilian plantation in the rainforest. He gets news that army ants are headed his way. His neighbors flee. A contrarian, he decided to stay and fight for his farm. He convinces most of his staff to remain. They have a plan, too, and they flood ditches to create a moat at their border. However, the ants link up, climb over dead bodies, and cross the water. Leinigen and his crew burn the ants with torches. But they run out of fuel. The ants keep coming. Finally, Leiningen himself dons a makeshift protective suit and, in a desperate attempt to save his men, races through the ants to the dam upstream. From inside the dam, he floods his crops to save his people. However, on the return to his plantation, he is nearly eaten by the remaining ants and has to be rescued in return.

It was a good adventure. Most of the shows my father wanted to share were pretty good. Radio dramas are a tough sell to kids in the modern age, though. He had a much easier time with movies.

Classic Films

The best old films are ones that are still loved by the entire nation. My father played 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,' 'Wizard of Oz,' and 'Mary Poppins' for my kids. They thought those were great. From there, he didn't have too hard a time getting grandchild enthusiasm for musicals like 'Singing in the Rain' or 'The Sound of Music.' The youngest two kids sang and danced along.

Once as a young teen, my daughter burst into her grandfather's house singing,

Good mornin', good mornin'
We've talked the whole night through
Good mornin', good mornin' to you
Good mornin', good mornin'
It's great to stay up late
Good mornin', good mornin' to you

When the band began to play
The stars were shining bright
Now the milkman's on his way
It's too late to say, "Good night"

So, good mornin', good mornin'
Sun beams will soon smile through
Good mornin', good mornin'
To you and you and you and you
Good mornin', good mornin'
We've gabbed the whole night through
Good mornin', good mornin' to you

My father was shocked but with a smile. The kids had watched 'Singing in the Rain' a few more times. They insisted so much that Gene Kelley was the best dancer in the world that my father turned contrarian and pointed out Frank Harrington and the Nicholas Brothers, because they were black, weren't as famous but still excellent.

"What about Ginger Rogers?" my daughter asked.

"Oh, I guess she was pretty good, too." He chewed on the end of his cigar. "Come to think of it, even if Gene Kelly was best, there were a lot of other dancers ..."

The 'best dancer in the world' conversation slowly turned to being about the best dance routine. Months later, after treating the kids to another showing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, my father mused,

"I'd forgotten how good Dick Van Dyke was."

He was speaking about the rag-doll dance that Van Dyke puts on, partly as a duet with Sally Ann Howes. The dance mixes eye-catching mime (some of the moves look impossible) with perfect, in-character dance. It might not actually belong in the conversation because it's so different from conventional scenes, so full of character and clown mime, but it is impressive. I've re-watched it a bunch of times now, myself. I see what my father meant.

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