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Staying Tuned : Radio's Faithful Fans Like the Mike Better Than the Tube

September 03, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

A shot rings out.

Then, as the high-pitched squeal of a ricocheting bullet fades, announcer Jay Michael excitedly intones:

"Now, as gunshots echo across the wind-swept reaches of the wild Northwest, Quaker Puffed Wheat (sound of gunshot) and Quaker Puffed Rice (gunshot), the breakfast cereal shot from guns (two gunshots) present the challenge of the Yukon (a dog barks). It's Yukon King, sweetest and strongest lead dog of the Northwest blazing the trail for Sgt. Preston of the Northwest Mounted Police, in his relentless pursuit of lawbreakers (Deep voice of Sgt. Preston: 'On King! On you huskies!') (dogs bark)). ..."

So begins "The Call of Duty," episode No. 579 of "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon" starring Paul Sutton as the famed, square-jawed Canadian Mountie. Air date: Oct. 31, 1948.

" 'Sgt. Preston' was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid," said Clyde Benge, 46, switching off the reel-to-reel tape recorder in the spare bedroom of his Huntington Beach condominium.

As a boy growing up in Huntington Beach during the late '40s and early '50s, Benge recalled, he had a complete Sgt. Preston town built from cardboard cut-outs from the backs of cereal boxes.

Benge, a former banker who now is a collection manager for Chrysler Corp., hasn't seen his Sgt. Preston town since Harry Truman was in office. But he still has his Sgt. Preston "square-inch land deal" certificate, the youthful bearers of which supposedly owned one square inch of land in the Yukon.

Over the years, Benge has more than made up for his other long-lost radio premiums: He's now the proud owner of not only a Sgt. Preston gold ore detector, but a Sgt. Preston pedometer, signal flashlight, mounted police whistle and totem pole collection ("all five of them").

The Preston items are only a sampling of the flotsam and jetsam of radio's golden age that have wound up in Benge's possession.

His spare bedroom is a treasure trove: tapes of the old shows, radio premiums, several hundred books about radio, posters and Depression-era radios. (His most valuable radio premiums--such as his collection of decoder rings and a rare, 1943 "Bulldog Drummond" bombsight--are kept in safe deposit boxes.)

Closing the sliding door of his closet, which is lined with tapes of more than 30,000 old radio shows, the low-key collector said matter-of-factly: "It's crazy. You get hooked."

Benge is not the only one hooked on those halcyon days--and nights--when the airwaves were ruled by such broadcasting immortals as Jack Benny ("Now cut that out!"), the Whistler ("I know many things, for I walk by night.") and the Aldrich Family ("Hen-reee! Henry Aldrich!" "Coming, Mother!")

Benge is one of 1,330 members of the Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety and Comedy. That's SPERDVAC, for short.

The Southern California-based, nonprofit organization was formed in 1974 in the wake of a wave of nostalgia for old-time radio.

Through its tape-lending library, SPERDVAC satisfies members' yearnings to relive those "thrilling days of yesteryear," a time when thundering hoofbeats were actually a team of sound effects men pounding halves of coconut shells on gravel.

"We've got just about every show you could name: 'Jack Benny,' 'The Shadow,' 'Lux Radio Theater,' 'Suspense,' 'Inner Sanctum' . . . ," said acquisitions chairman John Gassman, 33, of Whittier, whose twin brother Larry is president.

The Gassmans are two of the earliest members of the organization, which meets once a month either in Encino, Buena Park or Thousand Oaks. The next meeting, on Sept. 17, will be held in the Buena Park Public Library. The public is invited to hear guest speaker Jean Carson from Palm Springs.

And who, as moderator Clifton Fadiman might ask the experts on "Information Please," is Jean Carson?

"She did a lot of radio in New York in the late '40s and '50s," Larry Gassman explained. "She had an incredibly deep voice that allowed her to play a lot of voluptuous trollops on 'Gunsmoke' and 'Frontier Gentleman.' "

Over the years, SPERDVAC has played host to dozens of guest speakers from the old radio days, including humorist Stan Freeberg, announcer George Fenneman, renowned radio writer-director Norman Corwin and Carlton E. Morris, creator and writer of "I Love a Mystery" and "One Man's Family."

That's not to mention Jim Jordan, better known as Fibber of "Fibber McGee and Molly," those well-known residents of 79 Wistful Vista who had the most famous cluttered closet in America. Notes Larry Gassman: "His line was, 'Gotta straighten out that closet one of these days.' " (Actually, according to one club member's calculations, the closet gag was featured in only 128 of the 1,550 "Fibber McGee and Molly" shows.)

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