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Week of 20 November 1998

Vol. II, No. 15

Feature Article

Thrilling sounds of yesteryear to echo through Special Collections

by Michael B. Shavelson

When the young Van Christo was outside playing in the Roxbury of the 1930s, his mother had a surefire way of getting him into the house. "She used to holler out the window, 'The Shadow's going to be on in five minutes,' and my friends and I would all split."

Christo (CAS'51) is talking about one of the most popular radio programs of all time. Each week from 1930 until 1954, The Shadow seized and held millions of listeners with its famous, snarlingly delivered opening lines: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."

The pictures are in your head. Van Christo poses with a 1927 General Electric radio given to him by an appreciative fan of the Van Christo Radio Theatre. "It was built the same year I was," says Christo. "And we both still work." Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Sixty years on, there's hardly a detail about old-time radio that is not still lurking in Christo's memory. "I remember that The Shadow came on at five o'clock on Sundays," he says, "and the sponsor was Blue Coal. There were five different people who played the Shadow. Did you know," he quizzes, "that one of them was Orson Welles?"

Christo is more than a nostalgic hobbyist, however. His love of the radio programs of the 1930s and '40s led him to launch a Boston-area classic-radio revival. The Van Christo Radio Theatre rebroadcast old episodes of The Lone Ranger, Allen's Alley, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Green Hornet, The Great Gildersleeve, Lights Out, and dozens of other programs, first on WCRB and then on WBUR, from 1966 until 1981.

Christo recently donated to Boston University's Special Collections the thousands of reel-to-reel tapes he amassed during those 15 years on the air.

Nothing on TV
From 1960 until 1993 Christo owned and ran Van Christo Associates, a Boston advertising agency. It was through this work that he hit upon the idea of reviving the radio programs of the previous generation.

"In 1966 a client and I attended a preview of the new fall television season at the old Saxon Theatre," Christo says. "We went out for a drink afterwards and began to talk about how lousy the new shows were. We were about the same age and spontaneously started reminiscing about old-time radio shows: 'Do you remember this show? Do you remember that character?' It ignited something.

"When I got back to my office, I asked one of my assistants to do a little research to see if any of the old shows were playing. She learned that nothing was on the air, but she spoke to a syndicator who told her, 'It's not too expensive if you want to do it.' "

Christo was intrigued. Why not try to bring the shows back? He mentioned the idea to a few clients and suddenly he had three sponsors. He then approached the skeptical owner of WCRB, the local classical-music station, and persuaded him to give the show a try. The station agreed to a 13-week trial run, which turned into an 8-year run on CRB and another 7 on WBUR. The show was a success almost from the beginning. According to a 1967 article in the trade magazine Sponsor, listening to the show was a Boston ritual.

To Christo's surprise, some of the biggest fans of his Radio Theatre were not people his age, but those his children's age. "Our hardcore listeners were from the local colleges," he says. "BU, MIT, Harvard, Emerson. The program was very in. They loved the shows in part because they had missed them the first time."

Fans tuned in to reruns of Inner Sanctum and Gangbusters, and they also got to hear Christo catch up with some of the radio actors who had been off the air since television killed radio drama in the mid-'50s.

"During the height of popularity of The Shadow rebroadcasts," says Christo, "I learned that Brett Morrison, the last actor to play the Shadow, was running a film-dubbing company in New York called Tetra Productions. He had done things like La Dolce Vita.

"I telephoned him to ask if I could interview him for the show, all the while thinking, Jeez, I'm talking to the Shadow!" Christo put on his best suit and headed down to New York, expecting to find a suave, gray-haired gentleman in an elegant office -- the picture etched in his mind from all those years of listening to The Shadow. But he found himself in a run-down section of Manhattan, climbing the stairs to Tetra's dingy office. "The Shadow -- Morrison -- turned out to be a short, squat bald guy. Boy, did that hit home!"

Lights Out
The Van Christo Radio Theatre -- and its offspring, a children's show called Treehouse -- ran on WBUR until 1981, when, Christo jokes, "My wife fired me." (He is married to WBUR general manager Jane Christo.) "The program was extremely popular, but WBUR's format was being changed, and the Radio Theatre didn't fit. One thing we continue to do, though, is present A Christmas Carol. This will be our 33rd year."

The Dickens adaptation that Christo broadcasts stars Lionel Barrymore, Orson Welles, and the Mercury Theatre players. It was first heard in December 1939. WBUR 90.9 FM will air it at noon on Christmas.

The BUR connection is part of the reason Christo chose to donate his collection of radio tapes to Boston University. "The other is that Jane and I are both alumni, so it seemed the natural place for the collection."

Christo credits Terry Clarke, former president of the Boston University Alumni, with smoothing the way for the collection's installation. "I saw him at a WBUR function and mentioned that I wanted to give my collection to the University," says Christo. "Clarke said that he had been a listener of the Radio Theatre and was enthusiastic about the 2,000 shows being housed here. My hope at this point is that the University will be able to convert the fragile reel-to-reel tapes to cassette tapes so the programs will be available to anyone who wants to hear them."

He says that he'd like a new generation to have a taste of the shows that were so important to him and his generation. "Radio drama and comedy were an extremely important part of life during the Depression and World War II," he explains.

"Radio was the theater of the imagination. It was so powerful because it required the listener to bring something to it. It was not just television without pictures. With radio, you had to provide your own pictures."

For more information on old-time radio, consult http://www.old-time.com or http://www.otr.com/new_index.shtml.