Before the publication of Suspense: Twenty Years of Thrills and Chills (1998), most books about old-time radio consisted of spiral bound independent publications with episode numbers, titles, broadcast dates and, on occasion, celebrity guests. When Martin Grams self-published Suspense: Twenty Years of Thrills and Chills, he changed the way old-time radio was documented in book form. Instead of a "log" of radio broadcasts, the author provided an "episode guide" with plot summaries, writer credits including story origin, assorted trivia related to the broadcasts... and he documented more than the radio program. Suspense was also a network prime-time television program, spawned movies, imitations, spoofs, two separate runs of mystery magazines and a number of comic books. So comprehensive was his Suspense book that Martin was repeatedly asked, "What is your next project?" Little did the 18-year-old know at the time that his books would ultimately inspire and influence the way old-time radio would be documented. We wanted to know about Martin's drive to become a writer.
M: I never had intentions of becoming a writer. I wrote a book on Suspense because I had broadcast logs from two different historians and I noticed there was conflicting material between the two. I also wanted to know more about the program. So I set out to write a book about the show and write something I could pull off my book shelf as a reference guide when I needed. Initially I did wrote the Suspense book for myself, with no intention of making copies and selling it until a few good folks convinced me to do so.... I had no college education. I was in my senior year at high school. But it turns out a lot of people were enthusiastic about the book. After it was published, people started asking me what my next book project was, so I figured people liked what I did and I set out to do another, The History of the Cavalcade of America.
What books have you written for BearManor, and what are they about?
M: I wrote a few books for BearManor. Information, Please documents the history of the radio program, as well as the television program, film shorts and encyclopedia named after the radio program. The Railroad Hour was a project I co-authored with Gerald Wilson because I had a lot of material on hand about the program and Gerald needed a little help with his project. I Led 3 Lives documented the history of the television program produced by Ziv-TV in the fifties. It's a piece of historical propaganda now and hasn't been televised in reruns since the early sixties. My latest was The Time Tunnel which documented the history of the Irwin Allen television series. I recently finished a book about Duffy's Tavern that has been ten years in the making. It should be published before the end of the year.
Why did you choose those particular subjects?
M: There is usually a story behind each of the books about how I choose to write about them. But the biggest factor is -- and always has been -- what subject needs to be documented for the sake of preservation. I wrote a book about Invitation to Learning, an obscure radio program from 1940 to 1964, that fell into obscurity over the decades. Certainly a book about a more popular subject would sell better than Invitation to Learning, but there was a bigger need to document the radio program because very few people even knew it existed. I sometimes wonder why movie studios re-master the same movie four times over the past seven decades when they have films in their vaults rotting away. I know The Wizard of Oz, for example, is a cash cow for Turner but what about those silent Gloria Swanson movies that haven't seen the light of day? Writing about old-time radio programs is a form of preservation. We don't need another general encyclopedia of old-time radio when there are sole subjects that badly need documentation.
Which brings me to the next question. You are known for preserving old-time radio in a number of areas besides writing books. Tell me about them.
M: From my view point, there are very few preservation efforts being done for old-time radio broadcasts. When I ask an individual in charge of some organization what preservation efforts have been done recently, the answer is mute except for the revenue generated which they seem proud of or express concern. Over the past decade I helped photocopy radio scripts that were damaged in a basement flood. Those scripts were warped, had mold growing on them and were probably a health hazard. A friend of mine and I quickly went to Staples and cured the scripts to the best of our ability and made photo copies so we could save what had to be tossed into a dumpster. Most of those scripts were for radio programs that do not exist in recorded form so it was important that we save them.
In recent years I began scanning scripts for "lost" radio programs into digital format. Many from archives that presently house the only existing copies. Over 2,000 glossy photographs and publicity stills were purchased six months ago and I had each and every one of them scanned, backside with press release included. A friend used Adobe Photoshop to repair visible damages. We purchased transcription discs for "lost" radio shows and had them transferred to digital audio and off-site backups were made. That's just a sampling. Presently I am a consultant for two preservation societies regarding how old-time radio programs and materials are restored and preserved. Sadly, that is not enough. There are many individuals out there who brag about their holdings in museums and collections because they know what they have is rare and probably the only existing copies known to exist. But if a flood or fire destroys the scripts or transcription discs, they'll become the ridicule of the hobby. I have more respect for people who did something to preserve, duplicate and create an off-site backup of their archival materials. Believe it or not, most people praise such efforts but very few do anything about it.
How long does it take you to write a book, and having written more than 20 books, do you find it an easy task?
M: The time it takes to write a book is about three to four months. Researching, however, can take years. When I visit an archive out of state, I always look to see what else they have in their archives so if I get done the job done sooner than planned, I can spend the extra time copying material for another potential project. Or copy material for friends who need the materials for their projects. I have more than two dozen plastic bins in the basement filled with boxes of papers from archives. When people expressed an interest in writing a book or magazine article about subjects I came across, I send them some of the papers to save them time and expense traveling to the same archive. So not everything I have is intended to make it into book form. But in the long run it helps someone. There are subjects I would like to write about in the future but I don't have the time to write about them yet so I still keep gathering material until I feel satisfied that I have everything needed for a book. For some subjects, I have ten years worth of research and it's still growing.
M: Mostly academic materials. I never write biographies. I admire people who write biographies because I find that to be the most challenging. Anyone can stack newspaper and magazine clippings in a pile, chronologically, and write a biography but that only documents the actor's stage, radio and screen career. The trick is not starting each paragraph off with "on such and such date, so and so premiered on such and such play on Broadway..." Writing a true biography means interviewing family relatives and getting their cooperation, scanning family photo albums, interviewing people who know the actor for behind-the-scenes recollections, browsing vintage interviews, etc. The trick is knowing what kind of person the actor was without a slant. For this reason, I admire anyone who writes a true biography and not one that simply documents in prose a chronological list of their accomplishments.
I guess I stick with a specific format that I am better equipped and experienced. I choose a radio or television program to write about, browse hundreds of archives, thousands of scripts and recordings and document every facet I can unearth. For The Green Hornet, I read over 1,000 radio scripts, listened to over 200 radio recordings, browsed through Trendle's archive, Striker's archive, over 1,000 news briefs, magazine articles, dozens of archival collections for Mutual, NBC, and so on. Folks can now read an 800 page book featuring the history of the radio program, an episode guide with plot summaries, and virtually like my Suspense book.... if someone has a question about The Green Hornet they know of a one-stop source that more than likely provides the answer.
What would you say is the most interesting thing about being a writer?
M: The feedback. Family relatives looking for information about their father who was a band leader for The Cavalcade of America ask for information and I send them a complimentary copy of the book. In many cases, family relatives learn more about their father, mother, grandfather, and so on from the book. Sometimes a reader bestows me with a gift of something value that gets framed and hung in the house, a token of their appreciation for the book I wrote. Sometimes I get a phone call from a museum curator asking for information because they misplaced a book. I remember one evening I received a phone call from the writers of The Family Guy asking me which episode of the Alfred Hitchcock television show had a phrase poking fun of a sponsor. They knew what they wanted but they insisted on having the phrase word-for-word verbatim and because Hitchcock's narrations were not indexed, I pulled out my pdf on my computer and looked up the exact episode. They were able to flip to the correct page and found what they were looking for.
There have been moments, however, where my books act like fly paper for whackos. One day I received a letter from someone accusing me of being a Communist because I wrote a book for BearManor called I Led Three Lives, documenting the television series. They claimed the show was Communist propaganda and I should be dragged out in the street and shot. I sent a polite and short letter telling them that the lead character of the television show, Herbert A. Philbrick, was not a Communist but an America. He risked not just his life but that of his wife and children to be a counterspy for the FBI to help smash Communist plots and in my opinion.... that is as American as a man could get. I have received poison pen letters from people threatening to break my legs because of a book I wrote, beating them to the punch. I have easily half a dozen letters handwritten, double sided, four pages long, of people venting because they spent 20 years researching a subject and never got it submitted to a publisher yet... and told me my book was so good it hampered all reasonable attempts to publish theirs. Depressing, but if they had 20 years.... I find usually most of the crackpots are people with professional jealousy and sadly, express their negative opinions publicly. Not good taste. Worse, they burn bridges doing so. The trick is avoiding the crackpots and focusing on the importance of the projects at hand.
Do you have a website, blog etc, where readers can find you?
M: Yes. www.martingrams.com and it features scans of pages from my books so people could sample the contents, a list of convention appearances and the site is always updated with the latest books including DUFFY'S TAVERN, which will be published by BearManor Media later this year. I also have a blog, which posts something new every Friday involving old-time radio, movies or TV. Nostalgia in general. Sometimes it's scans of archival documents. Sometimes it is a sample of a book I wrote or plan to write. I recommend everyone check it out. www.martingrams.blogspot.com
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
M: Eight years ago my wife and I formed the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, a three-day festival that includes old-time radio, vintage movies, retro television and other facets of nostalgia. The event has grown in size and last year the attendance topped past 2,000. It's becoming what one attendee refers to as "the destination convention" of the year. And we must have accomplished something to be proud of not because of the size of the event, which takes up two floors of the hotel, but two members of a convention committee for another event have been speaking ill about MANC claiming our non-profit event that helps benefit the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is the cause of their own convention diminishing in size. MANC also provides a platform for authors to speak about their subjects to a large crowd, exposes old-time radio to an attendance that wouldn't normally attend an event solely focused on old-time radio and promotes all forms of nostalgia. If anyone reading this interview wants to check it out, this year's dates are September 19 to 21, 2013, held at the Hunt Valley Inn in Hunt Valley, Maryland. It's a fun time with lots of celebrities, authors, magazine editors, museum curators and lots of friendly people. Of course, I will be there so stop by and say hello.
You can find our collection of Martin Grams Jr. books here: