Writing Lessons From Old Radio Programs: Lesson 1

For the bargain price of $29, I got a flash drive containing 10,000 old radio programs from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Except for the Lux Theater productions (which run a solid hour), none of these audios is longer than 30 minutes. A crash course on how to tell a story in thirty minutes—and in a way that’ll keep those listeners in their seats till the very last word. An excellent learning tool for us writers out there. Take an episode of The Great Gildersleeve entitled “Day Off for Peavey.” In the catalog, number 358, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of Richard LeGrand’s acting career. LeGrand played Peavey, who was the proprietor of the only drugstore in Summerfield, where Gildersleeve and his family lived.

Episode 358 borrows its formula (rather heavily) from a Norwegian fairytale called “The Husband Who Was to Mind the House,” by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. If you are unfamiliar with that tale, it relates the adventures of a husband who thought he could mind the house far better than his wife, with whom he so often found fault. The following morning, the wife goes off to perform the husband’s farming chores, while the husband stays behind to see to things domestically. Of course, all manner of disasters occur in the home, ending with the husband getting stuck in the chimney. His wife rescues him. Though the authors give no indication that the husband has learned, by experience, not to treat his wife so harshly, we at least get the satisfaction of seeing him proved wrong.

The same principal idea is in operation in Episode 358 of The Great Gildersleeve. Peavey’s drugstore is celebrating its 30th anniversary of operation. Thinking Peavey deserves a day off, Throckmorton Gildersleeve assumes management of the drugstore. After he has said some rather uncomplimentary things about Peavey to his nephew, Leroy, Gildersleeve brags that if he were in charge of the drugstore, he would have made far more of it than Peavey has. To prove it, he sets himself the task of outselling Peavey, whose lack of ambition, so Gildersleeve claims, has deprived him of the power of becoming a successful business man.

The first thing Gildersleeve does, upon taken temporary custody of the drugstore, is bully his nephew-in-law, Bronco into buying a lot of merchandise he doesn’t need. Later in the day, Bronco returns all the things he doesn’t need to the store, embarrassing Gildersleeve while he’s bragging to his friends, the judge and the barber about how good a salesman he is. When he attempts to enlist his friends as touts, they both suddenly have work of their own to do that they are shamefully neglecting. A hurt Gildersleeve takes some comfort, but not much, from Leroy, who stops in to see how things are going at the drugstore. Just when Gildersleeve is ready to throw in the thermometer, a crowd of people, having heard about the anniversary from a “man on the street,” come in the drugstore. Soon, Gildersleeve has more business than he can handle. He has to call his housekeeper to help him. The end-of-the-day receipts are more than twice what Peavey usually rakes in.

With what he believes is warranted pride, Gildersleeve shows off his earnings to Peavey. He is somewhat taken aback when he learns that the “man on the street” wasn’t one of his friends, who were too busy with their own affairs to help him, but Peavey himself who used his “free” day to drum up business for his store. Gildersleeve realizes, somewhat belatedly, that Peavey was a far more competent businessman than he gave him credit.

This story, boiled down to its most basic essence, is—armchair generals never win any REAL battles.  We might add that it is also easier to give advice to others than to follow it yourself.

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