You'll never know how much I love you- Harry James v/ Rosemary Clooney
Radio In 1941
by Donna L. Halper
Asst. Professor of Communication, Lesley University, Cambridge, MA
Many people associate 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December, "a date which will live in infamy," as President Roosevelt put it. But while the entry of the United States into World War 2 certainly overshadowed everything else, 1941 was a memorable year for a number of other reasons.
To fully understand what occurred in the media in 1941, we need to examine some of the historical events of that year. 1941 began with a happy occasion-- on 20 January, the very popular FDR was inaugurated for an unprecedented third term; Henry Wallace was his Vice President. But events in Europe were on the minds of many Americans. The Nazis were becoming more threatening, and on 27 May, President Roosevelt went on radio (as he had done so many times before) to announce an unlimited national emergency after German forces over-ran Greece and Yugoslavia, and also invaded Crete. It was becoming more and more obvious that America would not be able to remain neutral about the war in Europe; in July, FDR nationalized the armed forces of the Philippines (which was still a US dependency back then) and placed them under the command of the new commander-in-chief of all US forces in the Far East-- General Douglas MacArthur.
As events in Europe looked increasingly grim, Americans were tuning in to their radios to hear the latest developments. If you listened to Mutual (which in its formative years mainly offered radio dramas and serials), you heard the news staff featuring Gabriel Heatter, Wythe Williams, and Boake Carter. Lowell Thomas was on NBC as was Walter Winchell (whose commentaries had moved from mainly celebrity gossip to political commentary, as he vehemently insisted for months that the US should enter the war). There was Edward R. Murrow in Europe doing reports for CBS, where he worked alongside of a growing corps of both radio and print journalists sent to do on the scene coverage. The black press (or, more accurately for those times, the "Negro press") was there too -- the highly acclaimed coverage of news from France by the Pittsburgh Courier had even been praised by Time Magazine, which noted that the Courier was one of the first newspapers to cover the situation in France.
The radio networks (and many local stations) now provided special daily newscasts which summarized the day's war-related events. NBC had a show called "News of Europe" every morning, and another in the evening called "News Here and Abroad"; CBS offered similar shows. Both networks began offering free tickets on weekends for servicemen who wanted to see the network shows. (As more men got drafted, we would begin to hear more women on the air in non-traditional roles. In 1941, Dorothy Thompson and Helen Hiett were among those women heard doing news and commentary, but even the so-called "women's shows" were gradually discussing war-related themes, as were the farm and home shows -- NBC, for example, had a National Farm and Home Hour, but it was now devoting part of the show to defence news...)
By September, after an increasing number of US ships were fired upon by German submarines, President Roosevelt issued an order to shoot any German or Italian ships on sight if they were found in waters the US had promised to defend. But the crisis continued to escalate; on 30 October, the US destroyer Reuben James was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Iceland (a part of the territory the US had agreed to protect), and 100 American lives were lost. On 7 December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On 8 December, the President asked Congress to agree with his decision to declare war on Japan. The vote in the House was overwhelmingly in favor; but one person dissented -- she was Jeannette Rankin, an avowed pacifist who also had voted against entering World War 1. The US officially entered World War 2 with that declaration of War, and what happened after is a story for a later article.
Prior to the declaration of war, the prospect of war loomed for much of 1941. Many Americans were worried about their future. A Roper Poll noticed that 61.2% of the American people believed Germany was a threat to the United States, especially if the Allies were defeated. In such insecure times, Americans depended on the mass media not only to inform them, but to entertain and reassure them. So you may have started your day with Arthur Godfrey, who was doing an early morning show in 1941, or listened to Don McNeill and the Breakfast Club.
There was a wide variety of music on radio in 1941 -- if you liked country (often called "Hillbilly" music back then), Gene Autry had his own show, the Melody Ranch, and of course, the Grand Ole Opry was still a huge favorite every Saturday night. It was still a year when the great band-leaders dominated the charts, and big bands played the music people loved. If you turned on your radio in early 1941, for example, you would have heard hits from Artie Shaw ("Frenesi"), Jimmy Dorsey ("I Hear a Rhapsody"), Benny Goodman ("There'll Be Some Changes Made"), and Gene Krupa ("It All Comes Back to Me Now"). Of course, there was always a Glenn Miller record on the charts, such as "Song of the Volga Boatmen" or "Chattanooga Choo Choo"; and you probably listened faithfully to his radio show on the CBS network.
Several other band-leaders had their own shows, such as Eddie Duchin, who was on the Mutual Network in 1941, and Xavier Cugat on NBC. Such greats as Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey also had hits and made network appearances. Louis Armstrong and jazz great Earl "Fatha" Hines recorded an album that got many positive reviews.
Among popular female vocalists were the Andrews Sisters with their hit "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy". Perhaps you had even purchased that new Emerson Phonoradio (only $49.95, including an automatic record changer) so that you could play all your favorite songs at home: there seemed to be so many good records (on 78 rpm discs, of course). And while we are speaking of record players and radios, if you submitted a question to The Quiz Kids show and the question was used on the air, your prize was a Zenith portable.
In 1941, you could get plenty of gossip and celebrity news from your local newspaper, which probably carried the syndicated columns of Louella Parsons or Ed Sullivan (yes, the same Ed Sullivan who would become famous for his TV variety show starting in the late 40s...). When not listening for the latest news about the war, you still enjoyed Amos 'n' Andy, who in 1941 did their first remote broadcast from Harlem. Many of you enjoyed the soap operas and radio dramas: there was Young Dr. Malone on CBS, or When A Girl Marries on NBC (both sponsored by General Foods); versatile actress Irene Rich was heard on NBC with Dear John, sponsored as always by Welch's Grape Juice. Speaking of radio actresses, you might have heard Agnes Moorhead in Bringing Up Father, also on NBC.
There was variety and comedy too-- the Texaco Star Theater, featuring Fred Allen, was on CBS; Kate Smith was also on CBS. The crime drama Gang Busters was back on radio, and Basil Rathbone was playing "Sherlock Holmes"; Entertainment industry newspaper Variety singled him out in October of 1941 as one of the best actors on the air. And speaking of the best in radio, Jack Benny was celebrating 10 years in radio in 1941, and much of the year, the top-rated show was Fibber McGee and Molly. William Boyd brought "Hopalong Cassidy" to radio in 1941, and a unique show was done by band-leader and vocalist Cab Calloway, who hosted a black-oriented musical quiz show on WOR in New York. Of course, the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, made a number of guest appearances on the networks, and she was as comfortable on radio as her husband the President was.
In sports, the big news was the numerous successful title defences the great boxer Joe Louis made -- seven of them in 1941. Meanwhile baseball star Hank Greenberg left baseball to join the army, a trend which many other athletes would follow. And if you were a horse-racing fan, you saw Whirl away, ridden by Eddie Arcaro, win the Kentucky Derby.
Perhaps you went to see that new Walt Disney movie "Dumbo", or Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane". There was also a re-make of a 1931 movie, "The Maltese Falcon", with this version starring the popular Humphrey Bogart. The Best Picture academy award went to "How Green Was My Valley"; Gary Cooper was Best Actor ("Sergeant York"), and Joan Fontaine won Best Actress for "Suspicion".
1941 was the year the USO was founded-- it began establishing clubs all over the world where off-duty servicemen could relax and socialize. (Several of my older female relatives recall that they met their future husbands while volunteering at a branch of the USO...)
The economy was heating up, thanks to the fact that the US was providing materials to those fighting against the Axis. The "Lend-Lease Bill" was signed by FDR, allowing American goods and armaments to be furnished to democratic countries which needed them to resist the Nazis. To expedite the hiring process as American industry shifted out of peace-time mode and into supporting the war effort, the Fair Employment Practices Committee was created by executive order; its job was to prevent discrimination by race, creed or color in defense-related work.
In 1941, you could buy a new car for $850, a loaf of bread was 8 cents, while a gallon of milk cost 54 cents. You could buy a gallon of gas for 12 cents, but some states had already begun imposing curfews on the hours gas stations could be open. Virtually all of the newspaper and magazine advertisements by year's end were inserting reminders to help the war effort into their ad copy. "Berlin Diary" by William L. Shirer became a best-selling book, and kids adored "My Friend Flicka" by Mary O'Hara. A couple of experimental TV stations were on the air, but not many people could afford the equipment necessary to watch, and programming was very limited. FM radio was available in many cities, playing either classical music or simulcasting the programs of the AM station which owned it. As the United States moved towards war, the music industry began putting out more and more patriotic songs, while plays with patriotic themes became more common (Lillian Hellman's war drama "Watch on the Rhine" was quite successful). Events that would change the lives of millions of Americans were about to occur, and many of those changes started in 1941.
(Courtesy of Donna L. Halper, Asst. Professor of Communication, Lesley University Cambridge, MA)