It’s hard to think that 70-years ago a night of in-home entertainment consisted of gathering around the radio listening to action-adventure series, westerns, chilling mysteries and laughable comedians. There were no 60-inch flat screens where the evening news was brought to you in stunning high-definition or that latest straight-to-DVD flick could be watched in brilliant color and Dolby Digital sound.
No, radio was the medium that made us laugh, cry, scream and cheer, and also convinced us that smoking was healthy and the new tooth powder Bob Hope was hawking would make our teeth whiter, even though the main ingredient was a bi-product of the marketing department instead of a lab and never even existed.
It was a simpler time. A time when youngsters would follow characters like the Green Hornet as he chased criminals, or adults would follow the exploits of famed insurance investigator Johnny Dollar. There was no explicit language, excessive violence or sexual undertones. Really! Imagine that!
I’m a big fan of Old Time Radio, or OTR for short. I love loading up episodes of Lights Out or Inner Sanctum mysteries on my iPhone, putting on my headphones, closing my eyes and entering the theatre of the mind. The pictures that accompany the story are those that come from my own imagination. While Arch Oboler reads the introduction to another chilling episode of Lights Out, I being to set the scene in my mind with clarity that rivals the big screen.
Each night before I close my eyes and call it a day, I listen to a couple of episodes of various series to just relax and clear my mind. My two favorite shows are the Jack Benny Program and the Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show. As I was heading off into dreamland last night I was listening to a Jack Benny episode which originally aired on April 13, 1941 called “Jack Prepares for an Appearance on ‘The Quiz Kids.’”
In this episode Benny is boning up on questions that may come his way on the quiz program. Getting frustrated with his inability to answer questions on ancient history, Shakespeare and more, Jack yells out a question for one of the Quiz Kids, “Who is the manager of the Penn Theatre in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania?”
My ears perked up and I got a little chuckle out of it.
The Wilkes-Barre / Scranton area has a long history of theatre and traveling vaudeville comedians like Benny making stops here. Long known for having a tough audience, entertainers were known to say, “If you could make it in Wilkes-Barre, you can make it anywhere.”
So what about that Penn Theatre? Was there such a place? After a little research, the answer is “yes.” The Penn was located on South Main Street, probably near the still standing F. M. Kirby Center, a classic theatre from the art deco period. Records show that the Penn was torn down sometime in the 60’s but it did indeed have a history of being a vaudeville house that brought comedians like Bob Hope, Jack Benny and George Burns to town. Originally known as Poli’s Theatre, it was a single screen house with almost 1700 seats.
[UPDATE: May 7, 2012 – I received the following email from a reader concerning the location of the Penn and Poli Theatres: “The Poli Theater was not by the Kirby. It was across the street from the Art Gallery which is in the old American Auto bldg. I know this because my mom used to take me to the Penn Theater which replaced the Poli. Both my mom and my aunt Emily played the piano at the Poli for the silent films and for vaudeville. Outlet Army/Navy on South Main Street is very close to where the Poli was located.”]
When vaudeville died, comedians turned to the new medium of radio and then onto television where some had success as Jack Benny did for many years after his last radio broadcast. It’s great to see and hear some of these old radio and television programs that many enthusiasts work hard to archive and preserve.