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SUNDAY BRUNCH | BOOKSHELF

Audio

January 11, 1998|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN FLYNN | Special to The Times

They can be a little corny, and some of the sexism / racism / ageism will make you cringe. That said, some truly entertaining literary adaptations, sitcoms, variety shows and thrillers have been exhumed from the radio land mortuary, cleaned up and given a new life on audio.

A precursor to "I Love Lucy," "My Favorite Husband" features Lucille Ball as Liz Cooper, a dizzy dame not far removed from Lucy Ricardo. In fact, six of the 18 episodes in this package later were adapted for Ball's famous TV series. All the episodes are light, bright and engaging. Sound effects, music and peppy Jell-O jingles heighten an experience suitable for the entire family. (Radio Spirits, six cassettes, nine hours, $34.98. Available in stores or by calling [800] 723-4648.)

Radio Spirits offers hundreds of shows from radio's heyday, from "Dragnet" to "Superman" to "The Shadow." Some work better than others. The half-hour "Escape" series from the '40s offers as much adventure and suspense as it did five decades ago. The stories are taken from popular and classical literature as well as from police files. Each is skillfully adapted and presented as a complete play. The FBI stories in "Gangbusters," though, are far too cliched, moralistic and dated to hold much interest today.

Most of the Radio Spirits productions sound clear, though static occasionally causes some distortion. The solid plastic cases are far superior to the flimsy cardboard boxes used by most publishers. And bargains can be found. "Old Time Radio's Greatest Detectives," for example, is a set of 20 90-minute cassettes that costs only $59.98. Episodes are included from 20 series including "The Adventures of Philip Marlowe," "Boston Blackie" and "Sherlock Holmes."

*

"You Bet Your Life" was an offbeat show hosted by Groucho Marx that began in 1947 and ran on radio and TV throughout the '50s. Sort of a combination quiz show / joke fest, it allowed Marx to match wits with wildly mismatched couples brought together to answer relatively easy questions. Indeed, the Q&A period of the program was actually quite short, with most of the time devoted to the sharp (and sometimes racy) banter.

On "Golden Age of Radio: You Bet Your Life" (Dove Audio, two cassettes, two hours, $18), Marx's stinging wit and double-entendres are as clever as ever. These four 30-minute shows play out very quickly. Too bad the producers replaced the show's commercials with exceedingly chipper music; the ads would have been more diverting.

*

Rod Serling returned to radio for one year, from 1973 to '74 with "The Zero Hour," a 30-minute series that aired five nights a week, with five chapters per drama. "The Zero Hour: Program 6" (HighBridge Audio, two cassettes, one hour and 40 minutes, $16.95) offers one complete thriller, "Wife of the Red-Haired Man," compiled from five segments minus commercials.

It's well-acted by Patty Duke, John Astin and a full cast. But the production is undermined by sound effects that occasionally drown out the dialogue. Still, the story is fairly taut, with an ending that's nicely unpredictable. The five previous "Zero Hour" programs were published within the last two years and should still be available in stores.

*

Anglophiles will be happy to hear that "Theater Royale," a 30-minute British anthology series from the '50s, is being released in this county as "Classic Radio Performances." The series always featured a famous actor who would host several one-act plays and adaptations of short stories, occasionally acting in them as well. The most recently published in the series is "Sir Laurence Olivier and Robert Donat Perform Works by Robert Louis Stevenson" (HighBridge Audio, one cassette, one hour and 25 minutes, $11).

Quite different from American postwar radio dramas, this vibrates with a rich theatrical style so unique to the Brits. These four Stevenson stories are intelligently adapted and presented with much elan. They also are accessible enough for preteens, though some may be put off by the leisurely pace and serious tone.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn reviews audio books every four weeks. Next week: Margo Kaufman on mysteries.

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