When I was a child, a local radio station played old radio programs from the '40s and '50s late at night- The Black Museum, Gangbusters, The Green Hornet, to name a few- and of course, Dragnet. I became addicted to these old shows, laying awake long after my bedtime listening to them in the dark. It was a sad day when the station format changed and the shows went off the air, but thankfully they can now be found online at various sites which archive old radio programs, most of which are in the public domain. My favourite of these old shows was always Dragnet, and I still listen to it on occasion, especially when I'm sewing as it's much easier to listen to something than watch it.
Dragnet debuted on radio in 1949, and ran until 1957. It was a police procedural which strove for realism, portraying both the danger which officers face, and the frequently dogged and drudging legwork which police work requires. It was created by Jack Webb, who was so dedicated to getting it right that he went on ride-alongs with patrols and attended courses at the police academy. Webb also starred as Sgt. Joe Friday who, over the run of the show had a series of partners, starting with Sgt. Ben Romero. His last- and longest- partner was Sgt. Frank Smith, from 1952 'til the end of the show's run.
The plots are apparently all pulled from actual police cases, with the names changed "to protect the innocent." The shows are acted out, with some narration from Webb. The first season is a little uneven, and a bit overly dramatic in places, but after this, as the writers and actors settle more comfortably into their roles, the show becomes truly great. The focus is always totally on the case, with very little time given to the officer's personal lives. Any information of a personal nature generally came out in casual conversation while, for example, Friday and his partner are passing time while on stakeouts. While these exchanges are always brief, they do give welcome insights into the detectives' characters, and frequently provide flashes of humour, as Romero frets about his wife and kids, or when Smith invites Friday to dinner, because his wife is trying to set Joe up with her sister. The show's dialogue is kept realistically brief, and to the point. It's also very undramatic... deliberately so. Whatever's going on, Joe Friday keeps his cool and it shows in his calm, even tone. This makes it even funnier when a suspect is hurling abuse or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves, and Friday shuts them down with a deadpan zinger... he always gets the last word.
Dragnet familiarized the public with police procedures and terms which they had never known before, such as A.P.B., M.O., and even the title, "Dragnet", which is a coordinated police operation to catch a suspect. The show was really popular, and increased public sympathy for the police and the job they had to do... this was no doubt furthered by the show's practice of dedicating each episode to an officer killed in the line of duty. The program was so well received that, as television became more popular, the decision was made to also develop the show for that medium. It debuted in 1951, also starred Jack Webb as Joe Friday, and ran until 1959. Webb revived the series in 1967, when it had a shorter run, until 1970. There was also a 1954 Dragnet movie. I've never seen the T.V. show or movie, but it spawned a spin-off "Adam-12" (also a police show) which my Dad is a big fan of, so I've seen some of that. It's O.K., but in my opinion, the best thing about Adam-12 is that it in turn had a spin-off called "Emergency" which ran through the '70s, and was about paramedics with the fire department. As a child, I used to watch reruns of this show, and I absolutely loved it. More about that at a later date.
'Dragnet' is a great show, and the prototype for pretty much all police procedurals which followed it. The "Law & Order" franchise in particular owes a big debt of gratitude to'Dragnet'. Even if you've never heard- or seen- the show, you probably recognize the dramatic theme, with its distinctive dum-dee-dum-dum. If you've never heard the show, and you enjoy police dramas, it's one of the best.
'Home From The Vinyl Cafe' is a collection of Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe stories, from every season of the year. This collection of his work was published in 1998, though of course the stories were originally told on his radio program, 'The Vinyl Cafe'. In 1999, this book won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. His books have won this award three times. Chances are, if you're not Canadian, you aren't familiar with Stuart McLean or the Vinyl Cafe. We Canucks, however, have been hooked ever since his radio show debuted in 1994. Originally intended to be a summer replacement show, it's still going strong today. 'The Vinyl Cafe' could best be described as an old-style variety show. It has readings, music, and most of all , stories told by Stuart McLean. These stories all revolve around a married couple, Dave and Morley, their two kids, Stephanie and Sam, and their various friends and relations. Dave owns and runs a music store called The Vinyl Cafe.
Stuart McLean is a natural-born story teller, able to keep you raptly hanging on his every casually drawled word. McLean's live shows play to sell out audiences. The musical numbers are generally pretty good, but what everyone comes for is to listen to McLean, perched on a simple stool, spinning tales of Dave and Morley and the rest. His stories are not ones of fantastical happenings, but rather of the events which occur in lives and families which are of little significance to anyone but those involved... the little things which make up life. His tales are always funny- hence the humour award- but also tinged with nostalgia, able to tug the heartstrings. It's not uncommon to be wiping away a tear of laughter, and then suddenly find yourself blinking back a tear of quite a different sort. CDs of his stories have whiled away many a long car ride... I remember once I was going somewhere with my brother, and we arrived at our destination in the middle of a story about Dave's mother in Cape Breton. We parked and sat in the car, listening until the end, unwilling to miss anything.
Every year at Christmas, I put on my CD of Stuart McLean's 1996 Vinyl Cafe Christmas Concert. Among all the great Christmas music, there are two stories which are actually included in 'Home From The Vinyl Cafe': 'Dave on the Roof' and 'Dave Cooks A Turkey'. The latter is probably the most well known of McLean's stories. It is the tale of one dark, Christmas Eve night, when Dave, happily snuggled in bed next to his sleeping wife, comes to the horrible realization that, having promised Morley that he'd cook the turkey while she took the kids to work at the Food Bank, he had forgotten to buy one. The prospect of breaking the news to his family on Christmas Day that there was no dinner was not an attractive one: "He was still awake at 2:00 am, but at least he had a plan. He would wait until they left for the Food Bank. Then he would take off to some deserted Newfoundland outport and live under an assumed name. At Sam's graduation one of his friends would ask, "Why isn't your father here?" and Sam would have to explain that, "One Christmas he forgot to buy the turkey and he had to leave." Dave's frantic attempts to find a turkey and hide the entire fiasco from Morley result in his riding about in a taxi at 4 am in search of a 24 hour grocery store. He manages to find the last turkey left in the city, but it's frozen solid. He ends up at home, thawing it out with the help of an electric blanket and hair dryer. As it thaws, Dave realizes why this turkey had remained unsold: "The skin on its right drumstick was ripped. Dave's turkey looked like it had made a break from the slaughterhouse and dragged itself a block or two before it was captured and beaten to death. Dave poured another Scotch and began to refer to his bird as Butch. He turned Butch over and found another slash in the carcass. Perhaps, he thought, Butch died in a knife fight."
Bedraggled bird aside, Dave thinks he's home free, until the next day when, his wife and kids gone to the Food Bank, he realizes that Morley set the oven timer for her squash casserole the day before, and he has no idea how to turn it off, and the oven on. Unwilling to admit defeat- or face Morley- Dave once again hits the road with Butch, in search of an oven to cook the turkey. Further shenanigans ensue.
This is the kind of humour found in 'Home From The Vinyl Cafe', deriving from situations that are funny, and don't seem that far fetched. Also, Dave and Morley and their kids feel like a real family, one we care about and root for through all their trials and triumphs. The book is separated into five sections: Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter Again, each containing multiple short stories set in these seasons. One of the tales I particularly enjoy is 'Sourdough' in which an acquaintance asks Dave to look after his sourdough starter, which has been in his family for generations, and the genealogy for which he has framed on his wall. As someone who managed to kill the sourdough starter a friend gave me, I feel Dave's pain and panic as things go terribly wrong. 'Home From The Vinyl Cafe' isn't the first collection of Dave and Morley tales, but it is perfectly fine to read it if you haven't experienced 'Vinyl Cafe' before- all the stories stand up well on their own, and the book also includes 'Holland', the story of how Dave and Morley met and married. 'Vinyl Cafe' is a bit like comfort food: familiar, feel-good, and heartwarming. It's also really funny. If you've never read- or listened to- it, do yourself a favour and look it up. Here's Stuart McLean recounting Dave and Morley's romance: