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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Life in the Past Lane, Volume 3
by Jason Hill © 2016
Reviewed by Robert Farr
(From Radio Recall, December, 2016)
This is Jason Hill's third volume of interviews with veterans of the Golden Age of Radio and. TV, most of which were originally broadcast in the 1980's on Hill's syndicated radio program, also called Life in the Past Lane. The author's timing was fortunate, because a decade later many of his interview subjects would either be infirm or deceased. Hill managed to catch them at a time their memories were still sharp and their storytelling skills undiminished. Hill credits writer/ producer/director Norman Corwin with urging him to transcribe his interviews and publish them in book form.
Volumes 1 and 2 of the series featured interviews with stars Mel Blanc, Ralph Bellamy, Janet Waldo, Les Tremayne and Jim Jordan. Hill didn't neglect writers and producers such as Arch Oboler, John Housman, William N. Robson and Corwin.
Volume 3 packs the greatest star-power of the series, featuring interviews with Steve Allen, Eve Arden, Carlton E. Morse, Gale Gordon, Jim & Henny Backus, Phil Harris, George Fenneman, Sheldon Leonard, Penny Singleton, Burl Ives, Vincent Price and others. Hill's broadcast format was to intersperse original OTR clips between the interviews and these are transcribed verbatim here. Readers who are long-time OTA buffs will have no trouble "hearing" the dialogue of the chosen segments, but it will mean little to readers unfamiliar with the programs.
Hill takes care in his introductions to provide a proper context for each interview and categorizes them into "acts": children's programs, announcers, utility men (character actors), singers and musicians, the serials, comediennes, and detectives. Most of the interviews are concise, just a few pages long, and cover the participants' careers from their beginnings to the 1980's. Although most were octogenarians at the time, they were all professional storytellers and this comes through on every page.
While OTR is the focus of most of these interviews, Hill gives his subjects leeway to cover other aspects of their careers, such as Sheldon Leonard discussing the many TV series he created and produced, and Burl Ives' recalling his singing and movie career. Ives in particular was one of the top character actors in the 1950s and early '60s and he shares fascinating anecdotes about James Dean, Raymond Massey and Paul Newman.
Often the interviewees opine about the state of 1980s-era entertainment versus midcentury when most were in their prime. Steve Allen in particular is unstinting in his disdain toward the debasement of popular entertainment in the last quarter of the 20th Century. Little did he imagine how much steeper the decline would be in the ensuing decades!
It is not meant as a backhanded compliment to call Life in the Fast Lane, Vol. 3 a great bathroom read. That's just a way of saying that the book can be equally enjoyed in a single reading or at a slower pace, one interview at a time. Strongly recommended to anyone who enjoys OTR or golden age popular culture.