Monday, February 2, 2004

”The only national program that brings you authentic police case histories..."

Long before Dragnet began changing names to protect the innocent, radio’s top cop program was Gangbusters, which debuted over NBC Radio on July 20, 1935, enjoying a twenty-year run on all four major networks. The influence of Gangbusters continues to be felt even today on popular weekly television programs like America’s Most Wanted.

Phillips H. Lord was a successful radio director-producer who was on the hunt for a comeback show. His bread-and-butter, a program called Seth Parker (Parker was a small-town country preacher), had worn out its welcome with audiences as a result of a publicity stunt gone horribly awry; Lord had acquired a schooner and named it after the preacher, which ended up shipwrecked in the South Pacific. Since he had done extremely well with Seth Parker and salvation, Lord decided to try the other side of the coin and do a series on sin—specifically, a hard-hitting crime program focusing on gangsters and the fearless lawmen who bring them to justice, christening the new series G-Men.

G-Men’s stories concentrated on the notorious bad men who were at that time making newspaper headlines: John Dillinger, “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, etc. Lord was able to persuade a reluctant J. Edgar Hoover to cooperate in the making of the program—at first. In time, the famed director of the FBI became dissatisfied and the organization slowly withdrew its participation, causing the show to be cancelled in October 1935. But the series returned in revised form to CBS January 15, 1936 under its new title, Gangbusters—which was now devoted weekly to lesser-known (but just as interesting, if not more so) crime cases.

Two particular aspects of Gangbusters were responsible for the show being so well-remembered today; first, the program’s classic opening, which ushered in the weekly proceedings with a combination of police whistle and sirens, shuffling feet, screeching tires, gunshots and the rat-a-tat of machine guns. This loud and brash cacophony introduced the slang phrase “coming on like gangbusters” to the American lexicon. The show is also remembered for its famous “Gangbusters clues,” a gimmick that appeared at the end of each program in which a national alert for actual criminals would be broadcast, giving listeners detailed descriptions of wanted evildoers. It has been estimated that these “clues” helped nab 110 individuals in the show’s first three years—286 criminals by 1943. This advocacy of encouraging the public to act as informers and bounty hunters continues today on programs like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted.

The show generally kicked off with an interview segment, as Lord (the show’s first host) would chat with a local lawman or federal agent who figured heavily in that week’s episode. These individuals were often interviewed “by proxy,” which is a polite euphemism for “an actor playing the role of that lawman or agent.” Later on in the series’ run, Lord turned over the interviewing duties to Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf (father of the famed Gulf War Hero), who had achieved national fame as the investigator of Bruno Richard Hauptmann in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case. Schwarzkopf left Gangbusters in 1945 and was replaced by retired New York police commissioner Lewis J. Valentine (who had served as a behind-the-scenes authority since the show’s debut). Valentine’s stint as interviewer was short-lived; he departed in 1946 after being asked by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to oversee the reorganization of the various police departments in postwar Japan.

In listening to Gangbusters last night, I couldn’t help but notice that what makes the series so entertaining in this modern era is that each show plays like an old Monogram B-picture crime drama. In the first of two episodes that I previewed, “The Case of the Appointment With Death,” Lesley Woods and Chuck Webster star in a story about a moll who helps a mug that’s best pals with her hoodlum boyfriend (who’s in the slammer) obtain a gun, which he uses to kill a police officer. Announcer Don Gardiner interviews Assistant U.S. District Attorney Fredrick H. Block about the case, and though I mean no offense, Block sounds like a man in serious need of a mojo transplant. (I can’t imagine how he ever managed to win a case.) Of course, the D.A. comes off like a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts compared to the second show’s interviewee—former heavyweight champion Jim Braddock, who in amusing punch-drunk fashion relates “The Case of the Jersey Butcher Bandits,” about a trio who have been pulling off a series of successful robberies involving butchers who keep large sums of money at home. This episode features the talents of Roger DeKoven, Charles Irving, and though he’s not billed, the unmistakable tones of Ted de Corsia. Gangbusters often drew from a rich pool of New York acting talent, including Alice Reinhart, Santos Ortega, Don McLaughlin, Raymond Edward Johnson, and Joan Banks. Several actors, unknown at the time, used the program as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, among them were Frank Lovejoy, Art Carney, and Richard Widmark.

The two programs I heard last night unfortunately didn’t have any dates; one of the reasons for that is that many of the existing episodes of Gangbusters are from its 1970s run, when the show was brought back along with the likes of The Shadow and The Lone Ranger. Gangbusters did not do as well as its cousins, however—many folks thought the program too “pro-police.” But I think the show is perfect non-think entertainment; a nod to a time when the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys fedoras and loud ties. This shouldn’t be considered the last word on Gangbusters, however. The prolific OTR writer Martin Grams, Jr. is currently at work on a book that will cover the entire history of the program, and is set to be published in time to make its debut at the REPS (Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound) convention in Seattle, Washington this June of 2004.

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