December 15, 2015


American Children Faced Great Dangers in the 1930s, None Greater Than "Little Orphan Annie" (A. Brad Schwartz, 12/15/15, SMITHSONIAN.COM)

Because radio's "theater of the mind" requires a fertile imagination, it has always had a special appeal for children. The same lively imagination Ralphie uses to picture himself defending his family with a Red Ryder BB gun, or reduced to a blind beggar by the effects of Lifebuoy soap, brought Annie's adventures to life more vividly than a television ever could.

This imaginative power is precisely why some parents and reformers saw the radio in much the same way Ralphie's mother saw the leg lamp: as a seductive villain, sneaking into their homes to harm the minds and corrupt the morals of their children. They saw the intense excitement Annie and other shows inspired in children and quickly concluded that such excitement was dangerous and unhealthy. One father, in a letter to The New York Times in 1933, described the effects on his child of the "all-too-hair-raising adventures" broadcast during radio's "Children's Hours." "My son has never known fear," he wrote. "He now imagines footsteps in the dark, kidnappers lurking in every corner and ghosts appearing and disappearing everywhere and emitting their blood-curdling noises, all in true radio fashion."

Many claims about the harm allegedly caused by violent video games, movies, and other media today--that they turn kids into violent criminals, rob them of sleep, and wreak havoc with their nervous systems--were lobbed just as strongly at radio in the 1930s. "These broadcasts are dealing exclusively with mystery and murder," wrote a Brooklyn mother to the Times in 1935. "They result in an unhealthy excitement, unnecessary nervousness, irritability and restless sleep."

The year before, noted educator Sidonie Gruenberg told the Times "that children pick as favorites the very programs which parents as a whole view with special concern--the thriller, the mystery, the low comedy and the melodramatic adventure." She asked, rhetorically: "Why is it that the children seem to get their greatest pleasure from the very things which the parents most deplore?"

Among the programs most adored by kids but deplored by parents was Ralphie's favorite: Little Orphan Annie. In March 1933, Time reported that a group of concerned mothers in Scarsdale, New York, got together to protest radio shows that "shatter nerves, stimulate emotions of horror, and teach bad grammar." They singled out Little Orphan Annie as "Very Poor," because of the protagonist's "bad emotional effect and unnatural voice." That same year, wrote H. B. Summers in his 1939 book Radio Censorship, "a Minneapolis branch of the American Association of University Women, and the Board of Managers of the Iowa Congress of Parents and Teachers adopted resolutions condemning the 'unnatural overstimulation and thrill' of children's serials--principally the 'Orphan Annie' and 'Skippy' serials." (Skippy was based on a comic strip about a "streetwise" city boy that served as a major influence on Charles Schulz's Peanuts.)

These days, when Annie is known mainly as the little girl who sang brightly about "Tomorrow," it may be hard to picture her radio series as the Grand Theft Auto of its day. But the radio show had a much closer relationship to its source material--a "frequently downbeat, even grim comic" created in 1924 by Harold Gray--than the relentlessly optimistic (and very loosely adapted) Broadway musical. The comic-strip Annie's most defining and admired trait--her self-reliance--came from the fact that she existed in "a comfortless world, vaguely sinister," surrounded by violence, where few could be trusted and no one could be counted on. "Annie is tougher than hell, with a heart of gold and a fast left, who can take care of herself because she has to," Gray once explained. "She's controversial, there's no question about that. But I keep her on the side of motherhood, honesty, and decency."

Posted by at December 15, 2015 6:23 PM


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