That’s right, I’m cheating a bit today. Cutting this list down to five was impossible. Old time radio can be an intimidating medium to jump into. There’s just so much of it. To make matters more complicated, it isn’t always the easiest thing to find. At least, that used to be true.
I was lucky. I came to the golden age of radio in my teen years, thanks to my family (and a particularly long school commute). I suppose you ‘gotta do what you ‘gotta do to pass the time. However, for a kid that grew up watching classic Hollywood movies and fell hard for Frank Sinatra in middle school, it proved to be a good fit.
Be sure to stick with me till the end of this article for some old time radio resources.
Without further ado, here are my Top 6: Favorite Old Time Radio Shows.
6.) Halls of Ivy (1950-1952)
In a classic Hollywood blog, I would be shirking my duty if I failed to mention Halls of Ivy. The half hour comedy was brought to life by the amazing Ronald Colman, who starred as William Todhunter Hall, the president of a small midwestern university. His real life wife Benita Hume co-starred in the series, bringing their delightful bond to life for all to see. The show ran for two years and wracked up more than 100 episodes.
While Colman is best known for the romantic screen persona he developed on the big screen during the 1920s and 1930s, as the next two decades rolled around, the actor wasn’t afraid to mix things up.
I was first introduced to Colman’s radio work in a recurring arc on The Jack Benny Show during the late 1940s, which in turn flung me into Halls of Ivy. The show is a must, especially for fans of Colman. His chemistry with Hume is top-notch (they were married after all!) and both sell the usually light comedy with real zeal and delight.
5.) Archie Andrews (1943-1953)
I came to Archie Andrews by way of McHale’s Navy… I’m not kidding! The radio series, which yes, is based on the popular comic book series, enjoyed a hefty run from 1943 until 1953. While the half hour comedy did see some rotating casts, actor Bob Hastings (best known as Lt. Carpenter in McHales Navy) voiced Archie for much of the run. In another delightful example of memorable voice work, the lovable Arnold Stang voiced Jughead for a short time.
Ultimately, if you’re familiar with the Archie comic books, you’re familiar with Archie Andrews. The narrative isn’t complicated. What sells this show– especially for me– is the vocal performances. Hastings brings a young and fun sound to the character, making it clear why he played Archie for so long.
The show feels like a bit of a time capsule now, bringing a very vintage, pre-World War II spin on teenage life. It’s reminiscent of the images conjured on the big screen in the “Andy Hardy” series. It is nostalgic, comforting and it goes down very smooth.
4.) Our Miss. Brooks (1948-1957)
Our Miss. Brooks blew my flippin’ mind the first time I listened to it. The half hour comedy ran on the radio between 1948 and 1957. Though, the show is very much a pop-culture staple from the time, also running on television and getting a feature film in 1956. The show starred Eve Arden as English teacher Connie Brooks with a talented supporting cast, including: Gale Gordon, Richard Crenna and Jeff Chandler (on the radio).
There’s a lot of goodness to discuss with this one. Old Hollywood fans the world over should be more than familiar with the genius of Eve Arden, thanks to her work in movies from Stage Door to Mildred Pierce and even At the Circus. She brought a fierce and fantastic persona every time she came to the screen and Our Miss Brooks is absolutely no different.
Now, getting back to having my mind blown. I’ve made it clear, I grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s. My first exposure to Richard Crenna was in Hot Shots Part Deux… for those unfamiliar, in that film he parodied his role in the “Rambo” franchise. This is the Richard Crenna I grew up with. So, the Richard Crenna in Our Miss Brooks…. in all his squeaky voiced glory is…glorious. Crenna came up in the industry on the radio and his take on Walter Denton establishes him as one of my favorite characters in all of pop culture. Check this one out! You won’t be sorry.
3.) The Henry Morgan Show
The Henry Morgan Show is one of the later discoveries on this list, only popping into my listening queue in the last few years (thanks to your’s truly enjoying a particularly thorough game show kick).
I ran a profile on Henry Morgan in the last month. The comedian is probably best known to audiences from his work on game shows like I’ve Got a Secret throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
The Henry Morgan Show had a very brief run, especially when looking at it next to the other titans on this list. The show ran in its most recognized form during the middle of the 1940s and featured Morgan as the lead in a relatively topical format, backed by Arnold Stang and Pert Kelton in character parts.
The show isn’t what I would call an easy listen like the narrative based shows I listed above. Morgan’s comedy is topical, often compared to David Lettermen by contemporary sources. For fans of radio, if you like Fred Allen, you should like Morgan. Much of the humor is of the “I understood that reference” variety; though, if nothing else, Morgan’s chronic abuse of his sponsors is at the same time hysterical and enlightening. While the show can feel very “of its time” there is a true sense that Henry Morgan was ahead of his time.
Okay, the last two entries on this list were a knock down, drag out fight for number one. Honestly either could have taken the top spot.
2.) The Jack Benny Show (1932-1955)
The Jack Benny Show in all its incarnations served as my introduction to the golden age of radio and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The show began in 1932 and ran in different forms and with various sponsors until 1955, only going off after making the inevitable jump to television. The cast remained the same for much of the run, with Jack Benny leading a colorful group of characters, including Mary Livingston (his real-life wife), bandleader Phil Harris, announcer Don Wilson and Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson. Tenor Dennis Day would join the team in 1939, replacing previous crooner Kenny Baker.
Jack Benny is one titans of not only radio, but of comedy. His was a name I knew before I started listening to the radio show and his influence extended way beyond the medium to television and even feature films. The show is a fun and easy listen. It’s largely sketch based and heavily reliant on the “characters” played by the performers (who played exaggerated versions of themselves). Benny, for example, became defined in culture for three things: always being 39, being incredibly stingy and really over-estimating his skill playing the violin.
The show had no shortage of memorable “bits” throughout its more than twenty years on the air, wether it was Benny’s ongoing feud with fellow host Fred Allen or his theft of actor Ronald Colman’s Oscar, every episode is a joy to listen too.
1.) The Fred Allen Show (1932-1949)
The Jack Benny fans out there are probably getting ready to jump in here… like I said, this was an incredibly tight dogfight of a list and Fred Allen wins by a nose.
Fred Allen is a name which sadly hasn’t really survived the passage of time and it absolutely kills me. Allen began on vaudeville as an impressionist and comedian before eventually moving to radio in the early 1930s.
Like Jack Benny, Allen’s show ran for a number of years through changing formats and an ever evolving crop of sponsors. His show was a fixture on the air through 1949 when the comedian stepped back due to chronic health issues. He would continue working, eventually becoming a fixture on the legendary game show What’s My Line until his death in 1956.
Allen’s shows are ones which contemporary audiences might find a bit challenging to dive into. This is primarily due to the topical nature of Allen’s comedy. Like Henry Morgan above, the source of the comedy is largely based in news and references which might not always be familiar. At times, the show can feel like a time capsule with discussions of housing shortages and political campaigns. Believe it or not, it is a really fun listen! Though, I’m adult enough to admit it’s not for everyone.
Of course, the discussions above are hardly wide-ranging. One of the joys of old time radio is just how much there is to enjoy. A lot of my favorites here are comedies, but there are some truly great series outside the traditional 30 minute situation comedies: The Saint, Dragnet, The Lone Ranger and The Player, just to name a few. There truly is something for everyone.
Old Time Radio Resources!
- Old Time Radio Downloads: Episodes available for download.
- Old Time Radio Catalog: Discs available for purchase.
- YouTube usually has a smattering of recordings from a number of different radio shows.
- Spotify often has a number of episodes as well. Usually they are loaded as podcasts.
- SiriusXM has a full channel developed specifically to play old time radio shows.
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!