Thursday, May 01, 2008

Old Radio/New Insight

Yesterday I talked a little about the old radio programs I now receive as podcasts. One of the feeds I subscribe to from Radio Time Zone is their mystery/crime/horror channel. It's an interesting mix of well-known radio programs, such as "Dragnet" with more obscure efforts, such as Vincent Price starring as "The Saint."

But I learned something new when I listened to "Rocky Fortune." I found out Frank Sinatra had his own radio program -- and he was darned good in it.

"Rocky Fortune" was little more than a vehicle for Sinatra, and only ran for one season back in 1953. Radio dramas had just about run their course by then, but it was an easy gig for Sinatra. The programs were pre-recorded (or "transcribed" as they said on the air), and it was just a matter of coming in, reading the script, and going home again.

Sinatra basically plays himself. Rocky Fortune's a casual happy-go-lucky guy, who happens to get in a lot of scrapes. He doesn't start out to solve the crime he stumbles across, but he usually has to because he's in the thick of it (and more often than not, being used as the patsy).

The program's narrated by the title character, which gives Sinatra a lion's share of the voice work. But that's OK because -- well because it's Frank. And that's an asset the writers worked with.

Listen to this scene from "Rocky Fortune," and perhaps compare it to the example from the "Lone Ranger" I posted yesterday. In "A Hepcat Kills a Canary," Rocky's helping out a friend who's a band leader by filling in on bass. The regular bass player's on a drunk, and can't make the gig. Rocky doesn't have an instrument, so the band leader sends him up to the bassist's room to borrow his.

Like the "Lone Ranger" scene, there's a lot going on with a lot of people. But listen to how it's handled differently here. Fortune sets the stage and then enters the scene. We don't get a lot of description, but at least, in my mind's eye, I see it all. I can picture the small, shabby hotel room with Johnny stretched out on the bed (with perhaps a blinking neon sign intermittently shining through the window). I can picture the tilt of the eyebrow on Dolores' face and a brief smile flashing across Rocky's as they banter back and forth.

How can I picture all that without a lot of sound effects and other audio clues? Easy. I just picture a very laconic Frank Sinatra, and the rest just falls into place. Because Sinatra was such a well-known personality, a certain amount of detail is filled in just by who's acting the part.

There weren't that many episodes of "Rocky Fortune," and perhaps it's just as well. Being placed at the center of a murder by accident is a premise that wears thin very quickly (after a while I thought of Jessica Fletcher as the angel of death).

Nevertheless, it's a breezy 25-minute drama that doesn't take itself too seriously. I didn't know Frank Sinatra had a radio program. I'm glad I found out.

- Ralph

BTW - you can listen to the original episode here.

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