Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Radio Memories: Small Town Heroes

One of my minor New Year's Resolutions will be to continue the Radio Memories posts I began the week before Christmas. Once a week or so I'll dip into my collection and post one of my favorite old radio dramas, from the early days of radio, back when radio offered its faithful listeners the excitement of a theater for the imagination.

For this fan, many of the more interesting programming appeared in the 1950s, at the tail end of radio drama's dominance of North America's entertainment habits. One very short-lived series starred a real-life hero, who, like most legitimate heroes, handled his accomplishments with graceful modesty and deferential humility. I'm speaking about Will Rogers Junior, little known today except for being in the shadow of the lingering fame of his humorist father, who never met a man he didn't like.

Will Rogers Jr did many things that his more famous dad never did: Junior ran a newspaper, served in the US congress as a Representative from California, resigned his seat in Congress in order to join the US Army fighting in Western Europe as a tank commander under General Patton, where he earned a Bronze Star... and:

He helped save the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust.

In November 1943 freshman Congressman Rogers introduced what became known as "the Rescue Resolution" into the House, urging the creation of an official U.S. agency to rescue Jewish refugees from the Nazi death camps discovered being erected across Eastern Europe. His objective was to create refugee camps in allied liberated territory in North Africa as well as neutral European countries. (Interestingly, his eventual congressional allies in this legislative effort included Maryland Congressman Thomas D'Alesandro Jr, father of today's Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.)

To make a long story short, the actions of this group of wartime legislators pushed a reluctant President Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board in January 1944. It was with the Board's assistance that noted Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenburg was able to save tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest, Hungary. The Board itself was said to have saved over 200,000 Jews in the last few months of the war. In and out of the public eye after World War II, Rogers never made a big deal of his part in getting these rescue efforts underway; "I didn't regard it as worthy of mention," he once said, with typical modesty.

After playing his father in the high-profile movie biography filmed in 1952, The Story Of Will Rogers, Rogers Jr turned his multi-talented mind to radio, where from July '53 through January '54 he starred as a composite of the public's memory of both him and his father in the rural drama Rogers Of The Gazette.

I can close my eyes and easily find myself transported into the show's fictional portrait of Illyria; it's been my good fortune to spend quite a lot of time in small towns like it, as a resident as well as a visitor. The show's theme music conjures up many pleasant personal memories of hunting for frogs in fields and ponds, in later years pausing to chat with folks in stores and offices, and being greeted with silent smiles by strangers crossing me on the sidewalk. I met many Maggie Buttons' and many Doc Clemens' (the other two main characters of the series) there, and more than a few Will Rogers', whose heroic pasts were kept secret from younger eyes and ears, until it was too late to offer anything but posthumous gestures of appreciation...

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