In the Limelight

Finding entertainment in the dismal time period of the Great Depression was crucial in the 1930s. Television had many landmark moments while radio gained momentum for its imaginative stories. Characters like the Green Hornet gave hope while Felix the Cat made people laugh. Both venues became crucial entertainment and have not lost momentum.

The 1930s was a decade that saw great leaps in television. In 1930 Felix the Cat became the first TV star, appearing in statue form on a turntable in front of the camera as part of NBC’s experimental program. A year later CBS began the nation’s first regular schedule of broadcasting with New York Mayor Jimmy Walker officiating the telecast. In ’32, CBS hit another milestone broadcasting the first presidential election on TV. Early in the night Franklin D. Roosevelt was announced as the next US president, over Herbert Hoover, with coverage continuing throughout the evening. Five years later in 1937 Irvin S. Cobb appeared in an NBC experimental broadcast, providing current news. At the decade’s end, RCA’s first commercial TV set was put on sale: a 12-inch screen for $625.

While television saw many firsts, the ‘30s became the most popular decade for radio, with 80% of people owning them by 1939. Among the many famous radio broadcasts Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds garnered the deepest reaction. Directed and performed by Welles, based on the novel by H.G. Wells, it was first aired by CBS on October 30, 1938, inciting mass hysteria. Despite a disclaimer that was announced at the end of the show, people believed it was a legitamate newscast and that it was really happening. The first two-thirds of the hour long production were presented as news bulletins about the Martian invasion currently in progress. Many deemed it cruel and deceptive to be read in that format, yet it has become iconic among science fiction and horror fans.

Adventure shows featuring heroes like the Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Green Hornet, and Jack Armstrong excited listeners. The Lone Ranger show began airing on the radio in 1933, a masked man was first played by George Stenius. He galloped through radios shouting “Hi-Yo Silver,” filling young fans with excitement for the next harrowing adventure. A darker, more mysterious man also ruled the airwaves. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” became a generation’s catch phrase beginning in 1930. Originally titled Detective Story, the macabre tales told in the eerie voice of the Shadow were so popular that it was renamed for the invincible crime fighter.

Comedies of the day gained laughs by shows featuring Jack Benny and Amos & Andy. The Jack Benny Program was produced beginning in 1932, running for over 20 years. Benny is recognized as one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. His comic timing and ability to get laughs through brilliantly placed pauses gained him a reputation for hilarity.

Soap operas held attention with dramatic tension, shocks, and surprises, including Our Gal Sunday and Guiding Light. Originally known as The Guiding Light, it is the longest running soap opera in production, beginning as a radio serial in 1937 on NBC, then moving on to television. The series began when a 19-year-old young woman gave birth to a stillborn baby and found spiritual comfort listening to on-air sermons by Chicago preacher Preston Bradley.

Whether it was the exciting adventure of a masked man, the wild surprises of a young damsel, or the mass chaos of a mistaken fictitious Armageddon, radio was beloved. People found solace from their difficult circumstances, enraptured by the stories of other lives when good triumphs over evil.