In the years before the shadow of television fell upon our culture, families gathered around another item of living room furniture for their entertainment: the radio, closing their eyes and opening their imagination to the wonderful world of radio drama, the theater of the mind.
Every Sunday we tune in to memories of those distant times, to find a link between our present and our past, in the hope of lighting a way to a better future. Rarely do the distances feel as magnified than with this week's offering: the historical drama, Mr President.
Radio drama allowed playwrights and sound effects crews the opportunity to recreate history in detail rarely possible in television, with that visual medium's requirements of physical sets and physical actors needing to look like their historical counterparts. Starting in 1947, the ABC network began a radio program that plunged audiences for the next six years deep into American history in a series built around an interesting hook to make history itself seem more interesting to listeners expecting otherwise from boring history studies endured in school.
Robert Jennings and Dick Woollen created an anthology program starring Edward Arnold entitled "Mr President", dramatizing, and humanizing, a different President of the United States in each episode. The hook was that the actual identity of the President would be withheld, thereby inviting the audience to test their knowledge of US history. At the play's climax, the announcer (in the early seasons) or a character in the story (in the latter days of the series) would reveal whether the audience's best guess had been correct... an interesting intersection with the formula used in detective radio programs so popular with listeners in those days.
Each week the series would open with a short introduction meant to strike a difficult balancing act between establishing the President as a leader worthy of respect, but a mortal man, not an infallible genius:
Mr President, at home in the White House, elected leader of our people, our fellow citizen and neighbor.The series starred Edward Arnold week in and week out as Mr President, an actor whose rise from humble beginnings to movie stardom rivals the rags-to-riches biographies of many of the presidential characters he portrayed on the air.
These are little known stories of the men who've lived in the White House.
Dramatic, exciting events in their lives that you and I so rarely hear.
True, human stories of... Mr President.
Many of the surviving episodes teach an elusive lesson: that the greatest leaders often arrive at their title through being such excellent servants, and that the secret to effective leadership lies in the humility of a leader's service, and the sincerity of a leader's sacrifice, as they give in order to receive.
This episode of Mr President was first broadcast on a Sunday long ago, on October 31st, 1948. See if you can guess which Chief Executive made the observation opening this week's Radio Memories post; but don't worry, I picked a rather easy one. If you enjoy the challenge, and develop a taste for more, be forewarned: the few surviving Mr President shows tend to be listed in collectors' and dealers' archives by the name of the President, rather than a general episode description... defeating the whole purpose of the historical guessing game in the first place! (It would be like listing whodunit detective programs by titles such as, "the butler shoots the millionaire", "the secretary poisons the boss"...)
Meanwhile, we invite you to listen to a servant of the people renewing his humility through his sense of humor, refreshing his courage through meditative prayer, and remembering his mortality by balancing the stress of duty with a calming, restful peace; all worthy habits that help us survive the tests of character involved in becoming a true leader.
Previous Radio Memories posts:
Mercury Theatre: Hell On Ice
Gunsmoke: Indian Raid?
Biography In Sound: George M. Cohan
Fibber McGee And Molly: The Scrap Drive
D-Day Broadcasts (from June 5, 1944)
Red Skelton: Vacations
Frontier Gentleman: Gambling Lady
Information Please: Guests Walter Duranty and John Gunther
The Aldrich Family: Cleaning The Furnace
Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates VE Day broadcasts from May 8 1945
You Are There: The Capture Of John Wilkes Booth
Fort Laramie: War Correspondent
CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits
Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock