This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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RALPHIE’S SECRET DECODER
by Stephen A. Kallis, Jr. © 2006
(From Radio Recall, December 2006)
With the Christmas season in full swing, many people will rent and watch the film, A Christmas Story. In that film, Jean Shepherd reprises his story of lusting after and finally getting a Little Orphan Annie decoder (the actual name was a Radio Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Pin, just for the record). Eventually he found a discarded Ovaltine can and sent for one. When it came, he waited for the first message he could decrypt, and when it came, he deciphered the message: "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."
Now the film is entertaining, and I own a copy, but, again, to struggle against the urban legend, the Little Orphan Annie show never broadcast
that kind of encrypted message. All the messages were previews of upcoming adventures. A typical message, from memory, would be "Bridge collapses." A message containing an Ovaltine (commercial) message however could be found in the “Secret Society Manual” which came with the Decoder Pin, but these weren't broadcast.
This myth has gained sufficient momentum that it has appeared in serious cryptological literature. So it's worth mentioning again.
That aside, the film shows Ralphie, the main character, using a real Radio Orphan Annie Decoder Pin. It was the 1940 Speedomatic model, with the number and letter scales on the badge edges. I presume this was done for dramatic effect, since it would better show Ralphie fumbling in his
haste to decipher the message.